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The UK is the largest sheep-producing member of the EU and lamb has been a favourite dish for British families since time began.

But things are changing and our annual consumption has fallen from 11kg per head in the 1960s to only 6kg in 2008. Across the EU, production fell by a staggering 7% in 2008 alone. In New Zealand, too, production is down and in Australia it is the lowest since 1920.

So what's happening and what can we do about it? These were some of the questions asked at the first ever International Sheep Meat Forum held recently in Brussels. In short, farmers everywhere have found sheep production hard going and, when alternatives are possible, they convert to something more profitable. Who can blame them?

We also considered the "public service" aspect of sheep farming. In the EU and in many countries around the world, there are vast stretches of land, which can only be maintained by sheep. Certainly, our lovely countryside would be far sadder without them. But governments are reluctant to fund this part of a sheep's job.

Yet when you look at the retail prices, lamb looks dear compared with other meats. Lamb is a wonderful and healthy meat, rich in iron and zinc, but many cannot afford this healthier option. Our own "meat celebrities", Brian Haigh and Richard Lowe, presented the retail scene in detail and gave excellent advice to the forum.

Whatever the industry might think about the importance of the origin of the lamb, when it is in the cabinet, the consumer looks at the price. If that suits and there is enough usable meat for the occasion then it will go into the shopping trolley. They might notice the origin, but this would not be the critical purchase factor.

Liz Murphy
Director, International Meat Trade Association

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