This post first appeared online at http://www.thatsfarming.com on the 6th September 2017

The third Love Lamb Week [#lovelamb] is happening across in the UK and some Irish farmers are joining in as, although, they are separated by the Irish Sea, they recognize a common problem.

According to ADHB, 1995 retail purchases were 131,000 tonnes compared to under 70,000 tonnes in the last year. UK lamb consumption has declined by over 11% over the last 12 months alone; a fall led by roasting leg joints [-15%] and roasting shoulder joints [-22%]. Total lamb consumption has gone from 7.5kg per capita in 1995 to 5.1kg in 2015 and it appears to be continuing to fall. One can expect the situation in Ireland to be no better. In anybody’s language this is serious.

While not wishing to malign the current initiative, are tweets, likes and shares really going to reverse the decline in lamb consumption? Or do we first need to recognize that the problem runs deeper?

A starting point must be to ask just why the decline has occurred. Is it an image problem or has the offered product just become unsuited to the demands of modern food consumption?

Has the farming industry failed to adequately promote lamb as a food product? In recent years there have been live TV programmes about lambing. We are also educating the young about where their food comes from. Open farms and places to meet farm animals are great for kids but are the sheep keeping one step ahead of us in the public relations battle? Does introducing children to lambs, and especially the bottle-raised variety, encourage them to be lamb eaters, or are they more likely to sign up to the idea that to Love Lamb means to become a vegetarian? Is our desire to portray the positive side of farming back-firing in this case?

Previous generations became acquainted with the smell of roast lamb long before they met the real thing; nowadays it is different. But we still choose to promote sheep meat as lamb and worse we even add the word spring [lamb] to emphasise the image of a baby lamb frolicking in a flower-filled meadow in spring time. Maybe we should stop using lamb and spring lamb as the images they conjure up for young consumers are ones that only lead to declining sales? It is a thought.

My fear is that the problems facing the industry go much deeper, it is about the product itself?

The demise of lamb as a meat is well known, it reflects the decline of the Sunday roast and family meals. It was not well suited to fast food or fast cooking as sheep meat is about flavour and time. The way we now rear it has given it conformity, it is about carcass size that conforms to supermarket packs, but of all the meats, the flavour of lamb and sheep meat is about what the animal eats. And are we guilty of trying to replace these flavours with fine words? Are we insufficiently critical of the product itself? Nobody likes to talk down their own product, but have we lost our objectivity?

We seem to think we can stem the ebbing tide with ‘marketing’, as if we can reverse such a strong market trend with promotions. Maybe this just indicates a failure to understand the nuances of the market. In the rush to place our well-conformed lamb into supermarkets, have we failed to develop the very differences upon which we can maintain and build consumer appeal? One fears so.

As lamb is moving backwards from the mainstream to the niche, do we need to start rethinking both our product and marketing strategy? At present, lamb’s consumer demographic is aging as the young are not buying lamb. We must not lose sight of them as longer-term consumers but, meanwhile, should we focus upon the older demographics with higher disposable income?

Should we be focusing on developing lamb, hogget and even mutton as a connoisseur’s food? Do we start rebuilding the market position of these meats by aiming at the top; it is after all where it has been far from forgotten. It is also a foodies’ segment that the young will buy into as they aspire with age. It is, however, a demanding market that wants a highly differentiated product with flavour and a multiplicity of other characteristics, environmental and animal welfare included. And thankfully for farmers, they are characteristics that are created on the farm and not in the factory.

One is aware of some local developments happening in Ireland. There are the ‘Mountain’ lambs and Achill Island Lamb. They are very much products for the connoisseur and they are exactly the ones that are needed at the top of the market. They highlight the differences that can be achieved when the product is linked to its terroir and the detailed back story is brought to the fore. They will not, of course, be the product or marketing solutions for all, but they should guide our wider thinking towards where lamb, hogget and mutton needs to go. It is about product development; a complex but not insurmountable task. The initial ideas are out there but they must be taken forwards.

The alternative is to continue to contend with chicken, pork or even beef by going head to head on the key attributes of convenience and cost. Simply, it is not going to work, as recent evidence shows. To continue following this path may suffice for some, for those who can compete on cost, but it is not the way forwards if you are small of scale and unable to survive financially at the foot of the existing supermarket supply chains. For the others, it is about changing and changing to survive.

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