Lamb is one of those foods that many Americans spend weeks looking forward to eating on Easter—and then promptly forget about for the rest of the year. Those fluffy and neglected young sheep are probably grateful for our disinterest.
Americans only ate a bit more than a half pound of lamb and mutton per capita in 2012, down from 2.2 pounds back in 1972, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture data. For those who don’t recall the difference, which might be most Americans given our distaste for this meat, lamb is typically from animals under 14 months while mutton comes from older animals. The USDA’s Economic Research Service website attributes the fall of lamb to “declining acceptance of lamb from a growing segment of the population” and competition from the more popular proteins.
Less appetite for lamb chops means fewer sheep. National herd numbers peaked all the way back in 1884 at 51 million head and have since declined to almost 6 million head, according to government data. Shrinking revenues and low returns have led the number of U.S. sheep operations to drop over the past few decades. Now imports—mainly from Australia and New Zealand—account for nearly half of U.S. consumption.
Who’s still eating lamb? “The Northeast, with its high concentrations of Middle Eastern, Caribbean, and African consumers, is a major market for lamb products,” according to the USDA’s research, which describes the typical lamb consumer this way: “an older, relatively well-established ethnic individual who lives in a metropolitan area.” Even those lamb-prone people prefer only certain cuts. Beef, pork, and poultry consumers, on the other hand, are more geographically dispersed as well as “younger and less ethnically oriented.”
Perhaps the Lamb Board can stage a comeback for the forgotten meat? Good luck.