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Lamb meat is enjoying a comeback

Travis Hoffman, sheep specialist at the NDSU Extension Service. (File photo)

FARGO, N.D. — In World War II, American servicemen in Europe were fed canned mutton that they detested because of its strong musky flavor. After they returned home, many of the soldiers banned lamb meat from their dinner tables — contributing to a huge, long-lasting decline in U.S. consumption.

But times are changing. Lamb meat is enjoying a comeback, and Travis Hoffman seeks to help U.S. sheep producers build on that.

"We need to know what our customers want from us," says Hoffman, sheep specialist at the North Dakota State University Extension Service.

He will lead a webinar on lamb meat quality on Tuesday, April 25, that begins at 7 p.m. Central time. The event is free and open to the public.

Sponsored in part by the American Sheep Industry Association's Let Grow Program, the webinar will help ranchers better understand what they can do to make lamb meat more appealing to consumers.

The American Sheep Industry Association, which represents 80,000 sheep producers nationwide, created the program to encourage producers to enlarge their flocks and to attract new producers.

Mutton versus lamb

Lamb meat comes from a sheep less than a year old, with typical slaughter time between the ages of 4 and 12 months.

Meat from older sheep is called mutton, which has tougher meat and a much stronger flavor than lamb meat. In the U.S., mutton generally is sold only in speciality shops.

Lamb meat also is relatively rare in the United States. A 2011 survey by the American Lamb Board found that nearly half of consumers had never eaten it.

This year, Americans are expected to eat about 1 pound of lamb meat per capita, compared with an estimated 57 pounds of beef and 97 pounds of chicken.

There are encouraging trends for the U.S. sheep industry:

• Drought in Australia is cutting into its lamb meat exports to the United States. That creates more opportunities for American producers.

• Lamb meat is popular with some religious and ethnic groups, whose numbers are rising in the United States.

• A growing number of Americans are interested in eating new and different foods, with lamb as one of the candidates.

Lamb meat "is intriguing to the adventurists" because of its "bold and trendy flavor profile," Hoffman says. He describes lamb meat's taste as "somewhere between the richness of a well-marbled beef steak and the game flavor of a bison."

Sheep producers aren't always fully aware of how the taste of lamb meat is affected by factors such as the animals' age, what they're being fed and whether the lambs are sufficiently trim and muscular, Hoffman says.

The webinar will examine "how our (production) decisions can pull those things together," he says.

Providing restaurants and supermarkets with the right lamb meat can be particularly important, Hoffman says.

Research shows that "eating satisfaction," based at least in part on flavor, is more important to restaurants and grocers than place of origin and sheep-raising practices, he says.

Hoffman, who joined NDSU a year ago and has a joint appointment with University of Minnesota Extension, has a strong background in lamb meat quality. He focused his doctorate research on the 2015 National Lamb Quality Audit and wrote the lamb quality chapter of the eighth edition of the American Sheep Industry Association's Sheep Production Handbook.

"It's fun. I've been able to be surrounded by good people and go down a good path," he says.

To register for the webinar: