Big Lamb, Small cuts… What’s happening Down Under?
By Marina Bester
LambEx 2016 was held between the 10th and the 12th of August of this year in Albury, Australia. Lamb and Mutton SA was there to see what the Aussies do keep lamb and mutton meat in the number one position when it comes to their consumers’ red meat preferences. They are currently experiencing challenges with consumer acceptance of bigger cuts from their 25kg+ lamb carcasses , let’s see what they have up their sleeves to take on this challenge.
Hidden in the heart of New South Wales is a small town called Albury, where only one train passes through on a weekday. This small town, the home of LambEx 2016, is surrounded by lush, green, beautiful farms that form part of one of the biggest agricultural industries in Australia, sheep farming. I visited a few of these farms during my time in Albury but one consistent and very obvious thing I noticed at all of them, was the lack of human resources (not counting those with the same surname as “Die baas van die plaas” of course). I was told that Australia is a country with a very low population density where you can drive for hours and still be in the same state. To put this in perspective I looked at a geographical comparison between Australia and South Africa. The Australian continent is six times bigger than South Africa, in terms of land, with less than half of the people that South Africa has. No wonder there is a lack of physical labourers to “work the land”! But whatever the reason for the lack of human help, these producers have to find ways of optimising their production processes. This includes using well trained sheep dogs, automated sheep handling equipment, cleaver breeding and years of experience to keep up with the growing demand for wool as well as lamb and mutton meat in their own country as well as in China and the USA to where they export colossal amounts of sheep products. In the process of optimising production and lean carcass yield, bigger and heavier carcasses started to enter the marketplace. With this came a challenge for the industry. Traditional lamb cuts such as leg of lamb or shoulder became too big to prepare in conventional ways by modern households of 1-2 individuals. Consumers have become “time poor”, seeking food products that are convenient and economical to prepare. These big lamb cuts did not fit this profile any longer. Sheep CRC, an industry innovation organisation, realised something needed to be done before one of the country’s famous staples ironically disappeared from plates. A meat science program was launched to investigate the possibilities of developing “new” cuts from these 25kg+ carcasses. The results of various studies that formed part of this program was presented at LambEx 2016 and can be found on www.sheepcrc.org.au under “Information and contact, Publications”. Here you can see the cut weights as well as the nutrient profiles of some of the cuts.
As expected, the science shamelessly favoured lamb and mutton meat. These new, smaller cuts ticked all the right boxes in the modern Australian consumer’s book. Being a nutrient dense food, lean lamb meat, in smaller portions is an absolute “super food” that gives new meaning to the saying “less is more” and therefor fits perfectly into a balanced, energy controlled diet. These “nutrient powerhouse cuts” have been tried and tested by culinary professionals, as well as home cooks, in Australia to make sure preparation is realistic on fine dining and household cooking levels. This program is still underway and therefor this information gets updated regularly. Now, instead of buying a big leg of lamb that can feed the entire town of Albury, the leg is cut up into “couple size portions” such as a mini roast, silverside, rump and topside, all cuts that can be prepared in under 60min! On the other side of the scale, due to the bigger lamb carcasses, cuts that were usually too small or expensive to be served on their own, can now feature on fine dining menus without chefs worrying about short supply of what was previously seen as exclusive “culinary butchery cuts”. Australian consumers can now choose from an array of good quality lamb cuts on the menu, such as lamb fillet or backstrap.
But is there a market for these cuts based on affordability, you may ask. Good Question. “Great Southern”, one of Australia’s biggest and most popular lamb and mutton meat brands recons today’s lamb consumer is a savvy one. He or she is an experimental and cultured cook with high expectations of taste and quality when it comes to meat. To keep this cook interested in your product one must constantly offer them a new cooking experience, be it a new cut or method, you have to own their attention (and Rands). However an important thing to remember is that currently the average weekly full time earning in Australia is $1,484.50, which is about R15 000 a week! Keeping in mind that their living costs are much higher than ours, this is still prettier economic picture than the one that can be painted of South Africa. We can therefor just assume more people can afford to eat red meat. Although, a trip to the local Albury supermarket shocked me with a $38 (R390) per kg for lamb rib chop. I chatted to Meat and Livestock Australia’s Marketing and Consumer Education executive, Lisa Sharp, about this, and she told me that the number one consideration for consumers when it comes to buying meat is indeed “The Side Pocket”. So yes, even though their economic situation is better than ours they also have a challenge with crossing the price barrier in order to win over consumers. The good news is, their second most important consideration when buying meat is nutrient value. As we now know, it is possible to position smaller, lean portions of lamb as an important food product in a healthy diet. It is a major priority for Meat and Livestock Australia to inform consumers on “nutrients for your dollars”, educating them that “expensive food” is a relative term that cannot be based on the mere dollar value.
From Lamb and Mutton SA’s side we are very interested in seeing how these new cuts are received by the Australian market, we will investigate the reality of offering such cuts to consumers and will be working closely with Meat and Livestock Australia to keep you up to date on consumer acceptance of these “new cuts” in Australia. As producer, what do you think? Is it worthwhile and realistic on the production side to relook the way we cut and package lamb (or mutton for that matter) in South Africa? Is this an opportunity to get better value from larger sheep carcasses in South Africa? Your opinion is important to us, let us know what you think, send a mail to firstname.lastname@example.org