Eating Quality a Top Priority

October 27, 2014

Eating quality a top priorityImproving lamb and sheepmeat eating quality is fast becoming a top priority for the sheep industry.

And new research shows stud breeders need to focus on these aspects as a matter of urgency, or face a potential backlash from consumers.  To make the most of the opportunities lamb producers have, breeders must select more for improved eating quality and not put too much focus on lean meat yield.  This message was clear from Meat and Livestock Australia and industry leaders at two recent conferences, Lambex and a Sheep Industry Cooperative Research Centre forum, in Adelaide.

Sheep breeders were urged to put intramuscular fat levels within meat, and shear force higher up on the list of priorities.  According to Sheep CRC research, the IMF levels in meat contributed strongly to lamb’s reputation for tenderness, juiciness and overall how much consumers liked it.

The downside for a lamb industry focused on producing highly productive sheep, was that heavy genetic selection for lean meat yield risked an unwanted decline in IMF and eating quality.  The good news, according to the Sheep CRC was with careful management breeders could maintain or improve both IMF and lean meat yield.  A recent study of the Information Nucleus Flock found a “significant proportion” of lambs within it rated IMF levels below what was regarded as an acceptable level.

MLA’s global marketing manager Michael Edmonds told producers at Lambex they had every reason to be buoyant about the future global growth in demand for their products. But, he urged them to focus on producing quality.  This was because the high price of retail lamb, compared to other competing proteins, was now the industry’s biggest challenge.  To justify this position, the lamb sector needed to invest more in marketing to ensure consumers saw lamb as a premium product, Michael said.

JBS head of US imports Kim Holzner said cost volat¬ility was deterring people in the US food service industry — a country which was the second biggest consumer of Australian lamb after the domestic market — from putting lamb on their menu consistently.  He also said consumers who paid a premium price, expected a premium product.

And South Australian-based processor Thomas Foods International’s Dr David Rutley said TFI was working on improving feedback to producers, based on quality and yield.  It was doing that by looking at measurements like intramuscular fat and yield, through involvement in research projects with Sheep CRC and MLA.
David said TFI was in favour of producers adopting electronic identification for sheep as individual animal identification would help provide more information back to them from processors.

At farm level, MLA researcher Dr Alex Ball said lamb quality would drive future profitability on-farm, and that the industry was “dependent on quality” for its future.  Producers would eventually have the ability to do value-based marketing, thanks to the development of new technology that was able to measure attributes of meat that contributed to quality, such as IMF and shear force, he said.  The challenge for breeders now was to balance focus on increasing lean meat yield while also increasing IMF.

Leading White Suffolk and Poll Merino breeder Andrew Michael of Leahcim at Snowtown in South Australia, is using new breeding technologies, such as juvenile in-vitro embryo transfer to fast-track genetic gain. He believes lifting IMF and improving shear force figures is so important for the sheep industry that he will prioritise it in his JIVET programs next year.  “It is a matter of urgency,” he said.  Andrew said there were “huge opportunities” for the sheepmeat industry if it could keep improving meat eating quality. He said the Merino breed’s role in the sheepmeat and prime lamb industry shouldn't be overlooked as Merinos “influenced 70 per cent of lambs killed nationally”.


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