Lamb has always been something of a stepchild in the U.S. meat industry.
After all, herding sheep isn’t nearly as iconic a profession as raising cattle. Nobody makes movies about the life of a sheepherder — well, other than what is apparently a stunning, multiple award-winning documentary, titled “Sweetgrass,” about a Norwegian sheepherding family in Montana who still drive their flock into the mountains each spring.
But that’s just one against literally thousands of good-guy versus bad-guy shoot-’em-up Westerns churned out by Hollywood ever since talkies replaced silent films. In fact, one could argue that there’s no more romanticized figure in American lore than the lone cowboy riding the range and sleeping out under the stars as he drives his herd of Longhorns to market along the dusty trail.
Plus, sheep are generally considered among the dumbest of mammals (they’re not; they just have strong herding instincts as a protective mechanism), while cattle can look pretty majestic in the rodeo ring and incredibly powerful stampeding across the prairie when a lightning strike spooks the herd after they’re bedded down for the night.
Not only that, but “punching sheep” has a weird and somewhat disturbing connotation, compared with the identical phrase applied to bovines.
And that’s really unfair.
According to the infallible reference of Wikipedia, sheep were the very first livestock species to be domesticated by the ancients, allegedly in the Middle East somewhere around 8,000 B.C. Raised originally for their milk and meat, the Persians later learned how to make woolen fabrics from their fleece.
Other little-known factoids: Columbus brought sheep with him on his second voyage to the New World, as did the Spanish conquistador Cortez some 25 years later, which were undoubtedly the least destructive “accomplishments” on their resumes.
Centuries later, of course, there were violent confrontations between sheepmen and cattlemen in the Wild West over fencing off the rangeland, with cowboys calling sheep “range maggots,” and sheepherders really having no good comeback that history’s ever recorded.
Although the business of raising sheep remains a massive industry globally, in the United States … not so much.
According to USDA’s Economic Research Service, sheep production in the U.S. began a steep decline — which has never really reversed itself — following the end of World War II. The reasons were twofold: the introduction of synthetic fabrics that displaced wool in the clothing industry; and changing consumer tastes that shifted from eating lamb to consuming beef and chicken.
Since raising sheep had historically been conducted to optimize wool production, so-called “meat breeds” were slow to be introduced, and for those who’ve sampled mutton from “mature” sheep, well, let’s just say it’s an acquired taste.
For the last several decades, the domestic industry has focused on improving organoleptic consistency and expanding culinary applications for lamb. That has improved margins somewhat for producers, but even though the U.S. sheep herd totals more than 5.2 million head — mostly concentrated in Texas, California and Colorado — imports remain dominant at retail and foodservice.
Then there’s the price point.
Even accounting for the fact that beef (and chicken) prices have moderated since last year, a side-by-side comparison makes it evident why so few households incorporate lamb as part of their regular dinnertime fare. According to USDA data as of May 2018, the average national price per pound for bone-in ribeye steak is $6.67, and for ground chuck about $3.37. Both of those represent about a 16% lower retail price point, versus 2016.
For lamb, again according to USDA, two of the cuts typically found in supermarkets were significantly more expensive. Boneless leg of lamb averaged about $8.99 a pound, while loin chops averaged about $10.75 a pound.
Unless you’re in a tax bracket that requires an attorney to help file your return, you’re probably not in the market to regularly purchase lamb to barbecue on the grill or prepare in the oven for the family dinner.
(By the way, where lamb is more popular, prices are more competitive. For comparison, the regular retail price of lamb loin chops in Cole’s, one of Australia’s bigger grocery chains, is about $19 a kilogram. Counting the currency exchange rate, that converts to about $6.47 a pound US).
Lamb’s second-class status may be changing, however, as Bloomberg recently reported in noting the growing number of fast-food and casual restaurant chains introducing lamb as a novelty item to attract all those foodie-obsessed Millennials. Here’s a quick summary:
- Arby’s will soon begin selling lamb gyros year ’round. And why not? “They Have The Meats.”
- The sandwich chain Potbelly is now offering a new Gyro Flatbread made with sliced lamb (but isn’t the marketing of “flatbread” and the moniker “Potbelly” kind of at odds with each other?).
- The Yard House brewery, a unit of Orlando, Fla.-based Darden’s Restaurants (Olive Garden, LongHorn Steakhouse), is now selling a lamb burger topped with feta cream cheese, which sounds just about perfect after downing four or five beers.
- Tony Roma’s restaurants are featuring lamb ribs (at selected stores), a menu item that sounds manly enough for even the most dedicated carnivore to order without receiving a knowing smirk from the waitstaff in return.
Overall, at least according to the market research firm Datassential, younger diners and their adventurous tastes have helped put lamb on about 20% of all U.S. restaurant menus, up from 17% a decade ago, Bloomberg reported.
But don’t hold your breath waiting for the comic relief character running the chuck wagon in some Western movie to round up the cowpokes after a hard day’s trail ride by announcing, “Here ya go, boys: Dijon-Roasted Rack of Lamb with a Tarragon-Infused Reduction.”
Editor’s Note: The opinions in this commentary are those of Dan Murphy, a veteran journalist and commentator.