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Age Weighs Heavy for American Lamb

16 February 2016

Challenging times lie ahead for the American lamb industry. Americans consume less than 380 g per capita with 52 per cent coming from the Southern Hemisphere. This once popular protein continues to experience limited demand, writes John Wilkes.

As a result lamb processors freezers will fill with inventory as the feedlots and finishers seek to move volume of lamb onto the market. Further pressures in competing for market share against cheaper imports mainly from Australia, by virtue of the current strong US dollar, add to the woes.

The reasons for the decline in US lamb are well documented.

Older consumers quite literally are dying off, the inexorable rise in popularity of beef, pork and chicken and historically negative attitudes to sheep meat for a generation of American WWII GI’s forced to survive on tinned fat, rank Australian mutton. This spawned a resultant lost generation of lamb shy Boomers and their subsequent Millennial offspring.

What holds the American Lamb industry back, hindering valiant efforts to re-energise demand and a sustainable future, is the gorilla in the room – sitting in a Midwest feedlot getting bigger by the week and looking for customers. Heavyweight lambs appear in feedlots each spring, many over fat and in excess of 90kg live weight.

At the recent American Sheep Industry Association (ASI) Convention in Scottsdale, Arizona, ASI President Burton Pfliger laid bare fundamental production issues afflicting the industry.

Burton Pfliger, American Sheep Industry Association (ASI) President, said a consistent consumer experience is important

In a hard-hitting and heartfelt report to close the 2016 convention he publically acknowledged the biggest taboos for the US sheep sector – lamb maturity at slaughter, associated heavy carcass size, excessive fat and the accompanying variable taste.

The super size lamb carcass has developed over 35 years. There is some correlation between increased carcass size and a shrinking US sheep industry.

In 1981 average carcass size was 25kg and US sheep numbers exceeded 12 million. In 2015 an average carcass weighed 34kg, a 36 per cent increase drawn from a national flock of just 5.3 million.

Mr Pfliger stated: “Making lamb a consistent and premium product is critical to build a growing and repeatable and loyal customer base.”

He continued: “It’s my belief that every consumer that intends to purchase lamb and unwittingly purchases something else won’t return for another under performing experience. This must be reversed if we are to change the trajectory of per capita consumption of lamb.”

Central to this predicament is the ability to market all American sheep meat as lamb with impunity, regardless of age or finish. This yields a variable eating experience for consumers, combined with a higher cost over other protein, putting US lamb at a distinct competitive disadvantage.

Chef Travis Brust and Chef Anthony Frank, Executive chefs, look over a fine 5 year old Leicester Longwool ram carcass during a mutton presentation in Williamsburg Virginia

In the US lamb has two paths for classification at slaughter.

The preferable route under the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) – Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS) criteria grades a carcass Choice or Prime – officially designated, “Very high in tenderness, juiciness, and flavour.”

This quality marque requires lamb status to be verified for any absence of hardening (ossifying) tissue in the front knee joints that occurs in all lamb on becoming yearling mutton – normally at 12-14 months.

In some animals, particularly wethers, this might not occur until almost two years of age; still permitting AMS grading as lamb.

Animals missing Choice and Prime can take another route to lamb status. Under United States Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Food Safety Inspection Services (FSIS) criteria, lambs not making the grade under AMS can simply be called lamb. Currently there are no regulatory age categories under FSIS inspection.

In 2014 at the ASI convention, Lamb Council members voted unanimously to work with FSIS to define lamb, however, factions within the industry vetoed this chance to regulate and improve product.

Mr Pfliger’s frustration was tangible: “The current system allows all ungraded carcasses to be labeled as lamb regardless of age.”

He continued: “Some say that lamb doesn’t have a flavour problem, but a fat problem; to me the two are indistinguishable.”

Lack of age constraint fosters the ‘super-size’ 40kg carcass with associated issues of fat cover and taste hampering consistency.

The ASI President’s remarks clearly resonated with many at the 2016 convention keen to raise US lamb quality. Producers and processors are seeking new customers and markets for a modern lean carcass clearly differentiated from older larger animals that stray into mutton territory taking unwitting consumers with them.

Somewhat fortuitously, Bob Kennard, who has been instrumental in spearheading mutton’s UK revitalisation, addressed The American Lamb Board during the convention.

Bob Kennard spoke about marketing mutton at the meeting

Mr Kennard, a pioneer of organic meat marketing, works closely with the UK’s National Sheep Association (NSA) and its President Phil Stocker on its Make More of Mutton campaign. His 2015 book, ‘Much Ado About Mutton’ is well regarded.

In his timely intervention, Building a Market for Mutton, Bob Kennard offered advice about mutton production, marketing and new opportunities for the product both in the USA and UK.

Though still niche it is attracting interest from wider food retail and restaurateurs always looking for new trends. A burgeoning ethnic market in the US already embraces eating older sheep meat, but preferably not over fat.

Addressing the producer funded American Lamb Board, Mr Kennard declared: ”Timing is right to back a new quality consistent product from the American sheep industry. Developing a quality market for older sheep can provide additional income stream and added carcass value for hard-pressed farmers.”

Wes Patton, American Lamb Board Chair, commented: “The American sheep industry has been without an outlet for mature sheep. It’s good to see an opportunity to market a high quality mutton product in the US. In doing so we can change the American consumers concept of what mutton is all about.”

Mr Kennard’s advice for more immediate problems in the American lamb sector was stark: “With the variations in the eating quality of lamb being an issue, clearly labelling any animal over 12 months as mutton should vastly improve the eating experience of the remaining lamb and instil much greater confidence in the American public.”

Seemingly thoughts of age before beauty need weighing up for American lamb.

John Wilkes

John Wilkes
Freelance journalist

John Wilkes is a former UK Sheep producer now living in Washington DC. His experience in both the UK and USA gives him a unique perspective on livestock and food production.

Nowadays he writes and consults about livestock and agriculture. He also hosts a broadcast radio program called The Whole Shebang on Heritage Radio Network from Brooklyn, New York.

John is a board member of The Livestock Conservancy in the U.S. and a member of The American Sheep Industry Association.