Skip to main content

In Like a Lamb


In an attempt to get a leg up on the protein competition — and extend the popularity of cuts beyond the traditional leg, chop and rack — the lamb industry has focused on product innovations, consumer education, and promotional campaigns extending from supermarkets to smartphones.

Over the years, tradition has played a big role in consumption of, and perceptions about, lamb. The protein is a widely consumed food in many parts of the world, including Mediterranean nations like Greece, and Down Under in Australia and New Zealand. In the United States, lamb has remained a special-occasion staple among many ethnic groups. Several cooking methods for lamb, such as roasting and broiling, are based on tradition, as are pairings like roast lamb with mint jelly.

The industry has had to address — and overcome — long-held views regarding the taste of lamb. “There was a phenomenon around the time of World War II when people got turned off of lamb because they were eating mutton when they told they were eating lamb. We like to say, ‘We aren’t your grandmother’s mutton,’” explains Megan Wortman, executive director of the Denver-based American Lamb Board. “Lamb is a much richer, milder product today — it’s not a hard sell.” To her point, mutton is meat from sheep more than a year old, while lamb is meat from sheep less than 12 months old.

Likewise, Elissa Garling, business development manager for retail at Meat & Livestock Australia, with U.S. offices in Washington, D.C., says that attitudes about lamb’s flavor and preparation are often based on misperceptions. “The lamb from today is different from the lamb you might have gotten 20 years ago,” she declares, adding that beyond any mutton-lamb confusion, new production practices have led to a richer flavor for this particular red meat. “In Australia, all facets of the supply chain have focused heavily on genetic research and innovations.”

Today’s milder, richer lamb flavor comes at a time when more consumers are open to the idea of eating a different type of protein in addition to beef and pork, thereby opening the door for consumption beyond tradition.

“We have this great rebirth of all things culinary going on right now, coming from celebrity chefs, television shows with chefs, and an online community that allows people to share their passions about food. That is a driving factor,” says Lori Dunn, executive director of pasture-raised programs for Strauss Brands Inc., based in Franklin, Wis.

The expansion of the collective consumer palate over the past couple of decades, inspired by a burgeoning foodie culture, the influence of authentic ethnic foods, and inspiration from restaurant dining, has also influenced people’s willingness to try a protein they may not have ever eaten, or haven’t eaten in a while.

Lamb delivers on that, especially since it has long been used as the predominant protein in a number of global cuisines. “As consumers continue to experiment with new cuisines, they are seeing how lamb can be used in a number of different ways,” agrees Dave Persaud, marketing director for The Lamb Cooperative Inc., based in Wilton, Conn., which sources lamb from producers in Australia and New Zealand. “Whether they see a recipe on TV or on a blog, or they try lamb at a restaurant, we’re seeing trial outside of the home translating to increased consumption at home as consumers look to replicate those experiences.”

Tying into demographics, many of the adventurous eaters are younger consumers. “I think there is a new generation of adventurous eaters, who are open to new flavors and tastes, and who want to cook more at home,” Wortman says.

Anders Hemphill, VP of marketing and brand strategy for Davis, Calif-based Superior Farms, has seen similar trends. “This is especially true among Millennial consumers,” he asserts. “These consumers are more adventurous eaters than other consumer segments, and they eat lots of different kinds of proteins, including lamb.”

Lamb also benefits from a certain health and nutrition halo. “Whether it’s Al Roker’s nutritionist recommending the inclusion of U.S. lamb in a healthy diet, or [a registered dietitian] blogger flagging that our lamb has five times the healthy omega-3 fatty acids as the same portion of beef, more and more influential food authorities are helping drive interest and consumption,” affirms Elizabeth Dressler, VP at Mountain States Rosen, in Greeley, Colo.

Approaching the notion of better-for-you proteins from another angle, the lamb industry and individual producers and processors have been able to tap into consumers’ desire for unique products crafted in a sustainable — or least more sustainable — way, with an interesting backstory. “A big part of what’s been driving an uptick in consumers’ interest in lamb [are] the attributes about grass-fed lamb and pasture-raised. Those are terms that tie into consumer interest in animal treatment and the idea of all-natural or hormone-free that consumers are gravitating to across the board,” notes Meat & Livestock Australia’s Garling.

Recently, Meat & Livestock Australia completed a Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) focusing on the footprint of lamb exported from Australia to the United States. “In one example of the data, we found that Australian ranches have reduced water usage 65 percent since 1991, and that the transportation component only contributes 6 percent to the total life cycle,” says Garling.

Superior Farms’ Hemphill emphasizes the appeal of modern lamb production in this country. “American lamb is a very sustainable protein — many American sheep ranchers are grazing their sheep on forest lands, which helps to reduce fire hazards, and in some vineyards, where the sheep keep unwanted vegetation low in a natural way, and they fertilize as they go,” he says. “These types of practices allow these sheep to graze in very natural settings in a way that is highly sustainable. Consumers are looking for these types of positive attributes in the foods they buy.”

Mountain States Rosen’s Dressler points to other eco-benefits, including the fact that private grazing lands provide habitats for wildlife and water for urban and other areas, and are visually appealing open space. One of the company’s ranchers, she notes, recently earned a prestigious Leopold Conservation award.

Another factor leading to new interest in lamb is a basic and longtime driver of any grocery purchase: cost.

“Increased interest in lamb has come from a combination of things. Consumers have been exposed to different cuisines, and the industry has had to innovate as protein prices change. When lamb prices got high in 2009,” Garling recalls, “it forced the industry to innovate at a time when consumers were tightening their belts.”

Strauss’ Dunn agrees that a new cost-consciousness, driven by high protein prices, has led to consumers’ willingness to mix it up when it comes to red meat. “We’re seeing more diversification within lamb, and flexibility among consumers to exchange imported and domestic offerings based on price point,” she observes.

The 2015 “Power of Meat” study, published by the North American Meat Institute (NAMI) and Food Marketing Institute (FMI), backs up that point. According to the report: “Shoppers have become more flexible in adjusting their meat and poultry purchases, changing between species and cuts to obtain the best value. This led to increases for pork and lamb.”

This ad will auto-close in 10 seconds