The U.S. lamb industry cannot expect improvements in prices for its products/byproducts when “quality” doesn’t warrant such increases. Shortly after WWII, W. Edwards Deming said “. . . an industry cannot manage its quality problems until it can measure them.” The sheep industry must identify its quality shortfalls and their root causes. Failure to prevent or correct quality problems in American Lamb will most likely result in opportunity losses and continued decline in demand.

This study is designed to quantify and benchmark perceptions regarding American Lamb quality at the retail and foodservice sectors via face to face interviews. Perceptions regarding American Lamb quality will be ranked and willingness-to-pay estimates for lamb quality attributes will be established. Retail and foodservice samples of lamb will also be acquired from those establishments (retail stores and foodservice outlets) and label information, packaging and characteristics of the product including tenderness will be assessed.

This study will be managed by an experienced team of researchers from Colorado State University and Ohio State University and will take approximately 12-18 months to complete.

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The "Preferences and Complaints associated with American Lamb Quality" can be used to determine goals and objectives for producers to implement to improve the quality, consistency, value, and competitiveness of lamb. Information from this research provided a rank and quantification of quality attribute preference, the likelihood of "must have" quality attributes for purchase, and an estimate of percent increased value of lamb products when a quality attribute was guaranteed for lamb.

Most importantly from this study, market sectors closest to consumers placed a continued emphasis on eating satisfaction, primarily described as lamb flavor. Eating Satisfaction garnered the greatest shares of preference, greatest likelihood to pay a premium, and the greatest dollar value premium offered if the quality trait could be assured.

When asked to define quality in open-ended questions, over 1/3 of respondents (45 out of 120) identified lamb flavor and/or taste as part of their definition of quality. The most frequent responses were simply "flavor or taste" (n = 23); six respondents answered "good flavor" and another six respondents noted "flavorful" as a definition of quality. Few interview respondents actually chose to describe lamb flavor, reinforcing the vague interpretation of lamb eating satisfaction, yet most common descriptors included "rich flavor" and "mild or medium flavor." Open-ended questions warranted responses that lamb flavor of American lamb was mentioned 34 times as a strength, 14 times as a weakness, 21 times as an opportunity, and 11 times as a threat to the industry. When lamb industry respondents closest to the consumer were asked what is the image of American lamb, respondents identified lamb as having "good flavor" (n = 5), "milder flavor" (n = 4), flavorful (n = 3), and "different than grass flavor" (n = 3). Responses regarding the image of imported lamb resulted in lamb described as "less flavorful" (n = 6), "gamey flavor" (n = 5), "different flavor" (n = 5), "stronger flavor" (n = 4), and "consistent flavor" (n = 3). According to the retail and foodservice interviewed, an overall perception of American lamb (that is primarily grain-fed) induced an overall milder, and more approachable flavor for American consumers. Yet, a perception that a majority of lamb in the U.S. are grass-fed existed among those closest to the consumer.

Compared to the 2011 National Beef Quality Audit, where food safety ranked first in importance, interview respondents in the present study only ranked the combination of product wholesomeness and nutrition as sixth in importance. Previous experience suggests that most sheep producers believe that product composition is the primary detrimental characteristic causing loss in consumer demand. However, results of the present study suggested that color, attractiveness, and freshness were more important than cutability to those that display lamb at retail, and overall lean to fat challenges of the industry are mitigated at the processing fabrication floor and only were ranked fourth in importance by the retail and foodservice sectors.

Lamb loin and rib chops purchased at U.S. retail markets indicated that U.S. lamb is larger, and more muscular with Longissimus dorsi area of loin chops from U.S. origin (3.03 in2) greater than chops from Australia (2.60in2), and which were greater than chops from New Zealand (2.25in2; P < 0.05). Rib chops had the greatest area of U.S. loin chops, partially due to increased tail length (P < 0.05). Australian loin chops were the trimmest in external fat at the middle (50% location) and closest to the loin tail (100% location), and rib chops were trimmest over the lower rib (100% location; P < 0.05). Australian and New Zealand loin and rib chops were more tender than loin and rib chops originating from the U.S. (P < 0.05), yet the mean for all chops was well below a threshold considered to be "very tender."

The image of American lamb was strong with a majority of retail and foodservice markets. A predominant image was of sheep grazing in the Mountain West, or lambs frolicking in lush, green pastures. The sheep/lamb industry has an advantage compared to competing proteins as interview respondents indicated that environmental stewardship of the American sheep rancher/farmer resulted in a perceived greater sustainability marketing angle.

Credence attributes of origin and sheep raising practices also proved important to retail and foodservice sectors of the lamb supply chain. A segment of consumers hold an allegiance to American lamb, yet origin was most commonly defined by industry respondents as local or locally raised. A recurring theme of this study was a request for locally- and regionally-produced lamb for the retail case and restaurant menus. Nearly, one-third of respondents indicated that an American Certified Lamb program would not be a good idea for a variety of reasons, and there was little agreement on what traits, if any, would be preferred or required. Respondents suggested that a Certified American Lamb program would not benefit the industry. The specified quality attribute of sheep raising practices was most commonly defined as grass-fed by retail and foodservice sectors of the industry. An evident disparity in preferences for sheep raising practices existed between current for U.S. grain-finishing management versus grass-finishing of lamb. Results from the lamb shoulder chops available at retail identified premiums for lamb with source branded (+$1.94/lb), locally raised (+$1.69/lb), and grass-fed (+$1.12/lb) labeling claims. A strategic emphasis on quality attributes identified in this research should strive to ensure that eating satisfaction and lamb flavor are optimized for American lamb, and to produce lamb with credence attributes that may be valuable for sheep producers and requested by retail and foodservice sectors, and inevitably American lamb consumers. Results from this study can be used to identify areas within each sector, as well as across all sectors, that the sheep and lamb industry needs to focus on to achieve continuous improvement and to increase demand for American lamb.