by George Looby

To many, the term “spring lamb” has a positive ring to it – a hopeful term that signals the decline of winter, the approach of Easter and a time to get the peas planted. It marks the time of the year when traditional sheep operations are at the very peak of their activity. These farms must carefully plan the time their lambs are born in order to be ready for the Easter market.

The term “spring lamb” has long referred to the lambs born in the late winter or early. Lamb producers who achieve this marketing goal maximize their profits for the year. The USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) has defined the term for regulatory purposes in order to ensure both the consumer and the producer are protected. It ensures the consumer purchases the product they expect and the producer receives the price they are due.

Australia and New Zealand are major sheep and lamb producers and supply most of the lamb and sheep meat imported into the U.S. The Lamb Co. is a group which represents the interests of the Southern Hemisphere producers. It has a North American subsidiary headquartered in Etobicoke, Ontario, Canada. This group employs a Washington, D.C., law firm to represent its interests in the U.S.

On Sept. 5, 2019, the Lamb Co. asked the FSIS to repeal the existing term for spring lamb as being obsolete and unnecessary, and to allow the term spring lamb to be used year-round. This petition was met with strong opposition from sheep farmers in the U.S. who want to keep the term spring lamb just as it has been used for decades. It is the contention of U.S. producers that a major foreign supplier of lamb is attempting to capitalize on a term long used by domestic producers to identify a very specific product to meet the demands of a very specific market.

In support of its petition the Lamb Co. cites various chefs, food service representatives and industry groups who support their position that the term is outdated.

American consumers expect that when they purchase spring lamb, they will getting exactly that. Producers in the States have gone to considerable expense in developing this market and are not enthralled at the prospect of a strong overseas competitor capitalizing on a program that they have spent years developing.

It is not the position nor responsibility of the FSIS to make changes in the marketing definitions used by any company or group to allow them to avoid costs incurred to meet its definitions. In this case, the foreign producer would have to bear the costs associated with such changes.

It seems the ultimate goal of the Lamb Co. is to increase the overall market share of lamb sold in the U.S. by its group and very likely at a lower price than domestic lamb (this having been the historical pattern). This marketing strategy can do nothing but have a negative impact on U.S. producers.

It is expected that FSIS will stick to the definitions that have served it well for many years. To date, there has been no action on this proposal, so for the upcoming season there should be no changes.