Facing increased competition from overseas, the U.S. lamb industry wants to re-invent itself and address the problems that have plagued it for decades.
Higher cost of production and retail prices compared with other animal proteins and lamb imported from Australia and New Zealand is one problem. Others include consistency, quality, lack of a year-round supply and communication with consumers.
Those issues have resulted in declining consumption for years, said Minnesota producer Dan Lippert, chairman of the American Lamb Board and a member of the industry advisory group working to bring viability to the industry.
U.S. per-capita consumption of boneless American lamb has steadily declined from almost 5 pounds in 1943 to less than 1 pound in 2012, and commercial production of lamb and mutton has dropped from 1.08 billion pounds to about 156 million pounds over the same period, according to USDA statistics.
“There’s a pretty good realization we have to do something to stem the decline in (producer) numbers and get more young people in the business,” Lippert said.
Recognizing that the industry is at risk, industry sectors are working together to identify the threats and develop strategies to be more competitive and profitable, said Megan Wortman, executive director of the American Lamb Board.
The first meeting of the industry working group was last January. The industry hired the Hale Group of Danvers, Mass., which specializes in strategy and marketing for agribusiness companies, and this week released its “roadmap” report to put the industry on a sustainable course.
The report projected that imports have already claimed half of U.S. lamb consumption and without aggressive change, that share will grow to 80 percent in five years.
The report is just the beginning. An implementation committee will meet in January to move forward with a comprehensive strategic plan with short-term and long-term objectives. The initiative will take three to five years to implement, Wortman said.
The advisory group has identified goals for four major areas, including:
• Product characteristics: Reduce the fat content and improve the consistency of U.S. lamb products as defined by a lamb quality audit, much like the National Beef Quality Audit.
• Demand creation: Achieve a significant increase in demand for U.S. lamb.
• Productivity improvement: Achieve a significant increase in productivity.
• Industry collaboration: Work toward a common industry goal of meeting consumer desires rather than short-term interests.
A lot of work must be done to get all sectors of the industry on board, but change is essential, Lippert said.
“In general, we have to figure out a way for all sectors to respect each others’ roles and complement each other. We have to find a happy medium where everyone in the supply chain can make some money,” he said.
Quality, consistency and finding a way to overcome the current seasonality of lamb production will be major challenges, he said.
“The truth is we haven’t focused enough on consumer value, consumers’ wants and needs, and getting that back through the system” all the way to breeders, he said.