Lamb in the days of COVID-19: Soaring retail sales and home-consumption vital
The effect of COVID-19 on the food supply chain is far reaching, changing the landscape of restaurants to take out only options and emptying grocery store shelves. As Easter approaches, a major holiday for lamb consumption, lamb is seeing a surge with home cooks.
Reinvention is going to be the name of the game for marketers, said Megan Wortman, and lamb is no exception. Wortman is the executive director of the American Lamb Board and has seen an upside to the change in demand wrought by COVID-19.
The closure of restaurants — especially high-end restaurants that aren’t suited to drive-through orders — could have spelled disaster for lamb as 50 percent of lamb goes to food service. Wortman said many direct marketers of lamb only sell directly to chefs, creating an immediate need for a significant change in marketing.
In the shadow of this blow, retail sales of lamb are booming, Wortman said, as consumers are stockpiling fresh meat for their freezers. Lamb sales were up 54 percent in the week ending March 15, with total fresh meat gaining by 77 percent. She said orders moving toward Easter are strong and the ALB is encouraging people to celebrate with lamb, even in a year when celebrations will look different than years past.
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“The good news is consumers are picking up things they may not typically buy because it’s based on what’s available when they go shopping and how grocery stores are able to get things restocked,” she said.
In the long term, she said fine dining will be hit the hardest but as more people cook at home and with more, and possibly different, consumers putting lamb in their freezers, there’s a new demand for cooking resources, a need being met by a number of experts in video and print. The social media campaigns by the ALB quickly shifted to meet the demand with resources for consumers on preparation, storage, and use of lamb cuts and leftovers. Approachable recipes that can be prepared at home are popular, especially with the network of food bloggers that work with the board. The food bloggers, who are also catering to the new normal for now, are being provided with lamb, ideas, and messaging by the ALB to make possible video tutorials and blog posts for the hundreds of thousands who follow them on social media and online. The board has also reached out to celebrity chefs and gourmet-focused magazines as they create content for social and print media.
With the premium price of lamb, some are concerned that consumers will be price sensitive, and understandably so, she said. However, coming out of this crisis, she expects new customers, expanded online delivery, and a closer connection between consumers and producers in a time when buying local and buying American will resonate even more with consumers. Imported lamb has long been a challenge for American lamb with imports comprising over half of availability. With the current food service closures, the loss of an account to imported lamb would be devastating to producers, making at-home consumption and retail sales all the more important, she said.
“We have a lot going for us as high-quality, sustainable, and a little flavor goes a long way with lamb,” she said. “Lovely products that consumers can embrace and feel good about cooking at home and still cooking a rack of lamb at home and having your own bottle of wine is still less expensive than eating out.”
Making the situation more complex, Mountain States Rosen filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy on March 20 with First Day Motions that will allow the processor to continue to operate with minimal interruption to fulfill its duties. In the filing, CEO Brad Graham said the company has been hit exceptionally hard by the COVID-19 pandemic-driven food service closures.
Mountain States Rosen employs about 50 people and is a fully owned subsidiary of the Mountain States Lamb and Wool Cooperative. The cooperative is comprised of 150 members, many of whom are multigenerational ranching families around the country. With 20 percent of the market share in the lamb industry, MSR is the only vertically integrated lamb company in the U.S., allowing them to control raw materials and processes from gate to plate but the facility, built in 1987, is aging.
In neighboring Morgan County, Colorado Lamb Processors is under construction and nearing opening, despite slowdowns caused by COVID-19. Mike Harper, a lamb feeder and partner in the facility with the Rule and Raftopoulos families, said the new facility is set up to handle a smaller volume of lambs, hopefully more efficiently. Harper said he hopes to begin hanging carcasses in June but there will be a slow increase to a potential capacity of 1,800 lambs per day, a number he said is unlikely. Even though construction was slowed, the plant should be operational by fall, when the majority of lambs are ready for harvest.
Without a fabricating plant in the region, the lamb industry is the only industry that ships hanging carcasses by rail to breakers on the East Coast. Harper said the greatest challenge facing lamb feeders is the ability to give consumers the product they desire 52 weeks per year. On the first of September, Harper had a few more than 13,000 lambs on feed. Three weeks later, that number was 61,000.
“If you were to look at the average weight, we probably didn’t vary 7 pounds,” he said. “In reality, we took in 48,000 and they were all within 7 pounds of each other. What do you suppose happens in eight weeks or nine weeks when those lambs are coming up on feed? How many lambs need to go to town? More than town can take.”
Trying to maintain a quality product while waiting for processing availability means an increase in gain costs with higher roughage and lower energy rations.
“You just can’t throw energy at everything like we could when we had the outlets,” he said. “It’s a tough business but I still feel like there’s opportunity. I’m excited about this new facility and the thought of handling a few more lambs ourselves and doing things that will add to the bottom line.”
Harper said efficiently flowing carcasses through the system would reduce wait and harvest lambs in a timely fashion, making the output more pleasing to end users. This added efficiency also helps curtail imported lamb being marketed at a more attractive price stateside, maintaining and growing American lamb’s market share. ❖
— Gabel is an assistant editor and reporter for The Fence Post. She can be reached at email@example.com or (970) 768-0024.
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