Dr. Travis Hoffman, joint sheep extension specialist for University of Minnesota and North Dakota State University, says lamb is on the uptick, but producers should be aware of trends in order to provide what the market demands.
“It’s important to know where we are relative to the bullseye and the products we’re producing,” said Hoffman. “I believe that lamb is a trendy protein and something we have value for in our industry.” But Hoffman added that according to the American Lamb Board, about 40 percent of consumers have never eaten lamb.
One new, and significant buyer of lamb is millenials who have a good income and are likely to be more adventurous in their purchasing options. Another market is those who are at the end of their career or into retirement and may be ready to experiment with something different. Ethnic marketing is an opportunity to provide lamb for a variety of markets and customers including Halal, Hispanic, Middle East and Thai.
Although a significant amount of lamb is produced in the west and Midwest, most lamb is consumed in the northeast, particularly in New England, where the preferred cut is leg. Restaurant trends include a preference for locally sourced meat, environmental sustainability and natural ingredients; and lamb fits those trends. Hoffman says rack of lamb is being used most often in restaurant, followed by loin chops, but he believes there is a market share for lamb sausage, shanks, loin, leg and shoulder cuts.
The National Lamb Quality Audit asked the question ‘what is lamb’ and received a variety of answers from respondents. “The first thing that comes to mind is young sheep,” said Hoffman. “I was hoping they’d think of at least a loin chop or something else on the plate, but we have a challenge relative to that description.” Hoffman says some consumers still relate lamb with ‘Mary had a little lamb’ rather than something to eat.
The audit results showed that top quality traits for lamb are eating satisfaction (flavor and taste), origin (local and American), sheep raising practices (grassfed, humanely raised), produce appearance and composition (lean to fat ratio and fresh lamb color), weight and size (consistency), nutrition (healthy) and product convenience and form (availability).
“Eating satisfaction was more than double any of the other factors,” said Hoffman. “It was most commonly the attribute people were willing to pay a premium for, up to 18.6 percent, if they were assured eating satisfaction. The main reason people purchase lamb is for the flavor, but the reason people don’t purchase lamb is also because of flavor.”
Producers can provide an excellent plane of nutrition and send only the most desirable and best-finished lambs to market, but if the carcass is handled improperly, many of the pre-slaughter factors that went into providing a good quality product may be lost. “Storage and handling is important,” said Hoffman. “Making sure animals are chilled at the correct rate and level to impact muscle pH. We can do a lot of things correctly with lamb, but if we cook it wrong, we cause a less than preferred eating experience.” Hoffman noted most of the changes in flavor profiles in lamb occur in lipids, or fats.
One of the most challenging aspects of U.S. lamb production is product uniformity. An individual who was interviewed for the National Lamb Quality Audit said it would be ideal if we could produce lambs with big racks and loins, and small shoulders and legs. Hoffman credits harvest facilities and cutting floors with producing fairly uniform lamb cuts for the commodity market from the large variety of lambs that arrive.
When asked about age determination for lamb, respondents had clear opinions. One said, ‘People would rather pay a little more money than buy a bad-flavored, gamey lamb.’ Another response was, ‘Young lamb is necessary I tend to gravitate to smaller, younger lambs because I think the flavor is so much better. There is no gamey flavor in young lamb. If bigger lamb tasted good, I would buy them, but they don’t.’ And a third respondent was clear about age at harvest with the response, ‘Lambs need to be under one year of age. We need to clearly define what lamb is in the U.S.A.’
Hoffman says 65 percent of retail food purchasers defined lamb as being under one year of age. “We have a true void in our industry relative to defining where lamb is,” he said. “According to the USDA Food Safety Inspection Service, if you merchandise a product that says ‘lamb’ on the label, it only needs to come from an ovine; young or old, skinny or fat. If we want a quality grade on it, it needs to have two break joints.”
Lamb pricing throughout the year varies greatly, and is often seasonal with large up and down swings. USDA prices for primal and subprimal cuts on April 21, 2017 ranged greatly, from $2.92 for shoulders, $7.47 for racks, $5.32 for loins, $3.65 for legs, $3.75 for foreshanks and $1.46 for flanks.
Hoffman says there’s tremendous opportunity for technology in the form of lamb instrument grading to change the game. “It takes pictures with a side and rear view,” he said, describing the technology. “Then it uses those evaluations and dimensions to determine potential USDA yield grade and quality grade, predicted primal yields, and ovine carcass cutability. I believe that when we get this information, we will be able to realize the decisions we’ve made across the supply chain on how we’ve been able to make these improvements.” Hoffman added it’s possible that instrument grading will be available as early as this summer.
“With this, we have an opportunity to improve information transfer,” said Hoffman. Particularly if you have electronic identification tags that identify those lambs as individuals, you’ll be able to look up potential yield grades, cold weights, shrink percentage and expected primal weights.” Hoffman added such a system will also allow the industry to maintain good inventory management and know what’s available.
Hoffman says as an industry, we have to become better at improving quality in regard to excess fat without having to use a knife at the point of processing. “U.S. lamb loin chops averaged 3.03 square inches loin eye area,” said Hoffman. “We’re at an advantage over Australia at 2.6 and New Zealand at 2.25. We’ve got more muscle, but we also have more fat.”
Tenderness evaluations showed that U.S. lamb is just slightly less tender than imported lamb, which could be due to Australian and New Zealand lamb being somewhat younger. “Lamb is tender,” said Hoffman, “and I don’t believe that’s what we need to focus on.”
Hoffman believes U.S. producers can improve lean meat yield, eating satisfaction and producer profitability. “When we work so hard to get lambs on the ground and keep them alive, we think ‘we’ve got that’. But now we have to work on nutrition,” said Hoffman.