Kangaroo has been on the menu for thousands of years in Australia, serving as the fuel in native diets and spotlighted on menus in pricey Sydney restaurants as a sustainable alternative to beef. Down Under, kangaroos are pests, invading golf courses, farmland, and even urban areas. But the meat hasn’t been widely embraced in its native country, or in other parts of the world, just yet.
That’s not to say you can’t find it. You can buy kangaroo meat in American cities like San Francisco and New York. You can get kangaroo in the U.K. And just recently, kangaroo made its way into supermarkets in Lima, Peru.
While Peru’s meat counters are no strangers to what we might call exotic meats—they regularly stock alpaca and guinea pig—kangaroo steaks are still an oddity. After more than six years of negotiations, Australia began shipping the meat to Lima this March.
Kangaroo tastes like North American deer. Many people object to both in concept, saying it’s a little like eating Bambi. While kangaroo is more environmentally friendly than sheep or cattle, the long travel time from Australia to other countries ups the meat’s carbon footprint. This long journey increases the cost of roo, making it much more expensive than meat farmed in Peru. A pound of local beef—the Peruvian equivalent of pot roast—costs about about $6.50 per kilogram (about $3 per pound) and kangaroo is about $26 per kilogram (almost $12 per pound).
Peru’s first shipment of roo was only 1,000 kilograms (2,200 pounds), but the Australian government hopes to increase imports as demand increases. Four species of kangaroo are harvested for commercial export from Australia: red kangaroo, eastern grey kangaroo, western grey kangaroo, and the common wallaroo, according to a press release from the Australian Ministry of Agriculture. Australian officials have authorized the harvesting of 512,300 red, western grey, and wallaroo kangaroos this year to keep populations in check.
“None of these species are listed as threatened,” said Nick McCaffrey, the Australian Ambassador to Peru, in an email interview. “The longer term average population of kangaroos is more than 20 million in Australia.”
So how do you harvest a kangaroo? Regulations dictate that kangaroos are shot in the head, and their offspring, called joeys, are clubbed in the head. Government scientists say this is a quick and appropriate euthanasia, but animal rights groups like People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals protest.
Those protests have been so successful that, for a long time, kangaroo meat was left to rot—or was used as dog food, says Elspeth Probyn, a professor of gender and cultural studies at the University of Sydney.
She says there are broad implications for limiting our ideas of what we will and won’t eat. “Joeys are beautiful and cute, but so are lambs,” Probyn says. “[We’re] trying to find way to feed nine billion people. What’s sustainable? What’s environmentally good? Kangaroo.”
Kangaroos can’t be domesticated, but they are environmentally sustainable. They also have a digestive system that doesn’t release much methane. “What’s more, one kangaroo consumes about a third as much plant material as a sheep, and just 13 percent of the water,” according to a 2010 article in New Scientist.
The meat also has nutritional benefits. It is high in iron and has very little fat. “[Kangaroo] is fairly lean,” says Douglas Bird, an ecological anthropologist who specializes in Australia’s indigenous cultures at Stanford University. “You get very low values of fat relative to protein.”
Kangaroo is best served medium to medium rare.
Selling kangaroo meat is just a boutique business for now. Australia ships kangaroo meat to about 70 countries, making it a $17 million industry, which is dwarfed by beef—a $6 billion industry.
Mollie Bloudoff-Indelicato is a freelance science, environment, and health reporter living in Peru. You can find her on Twitter.