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2022 National Lamb Quality Audit: Phase I: Supply chain perceptions of the U.S. lamb industry. Phase II: In-plant survey of carcass characteristics related to quality and value of fed lambs and mutton


The U.S. sheep and lamb population has slowly declined over the last eight decades, from 56 million head in 1942 to five million head in January of 2023. Sheep, often referred to as mutton in the meat industry, are mature animals that have at least two permanent incisors, spool joints, and are typically over 24 months of age. Lambs are considered young animals that lack permanent incisors, have at least one break joint, and are usually less than 14 months (USDA,1992). The U.S. lamb industry faces competition from imported lamb from Australia and New Zealand that is less expensive. This imported product increases the lamb supply within U.S. wholesale and retail stores, which, along with increased production costs, has raised concerns about the future viability of the U.S. lamb industry. In response to this pressure, the lamb supply chain can prioritize attributes that both reduce production costs and promote consumer demand. The first step in this process is to measure data from production through lamb carcass quality characteristics, especially data captured in the manufacturing settings. Benchmarking is necessary to identify needs to drive quality enhancements and to ultimately drive improvement and profitability of the lamb industry. The current National Lamb Quality Audit (NLQA) seeks to fill this gap by capturing baseline data from broad scope of the supply chain through perception surveys and in-plant audits. This baseline information will inform the lamb value chain on the current perceptions and lamb quality characteristics that may aid in identifying attributes to reduce costs and increase consumer demand. The NLQA, conducted three times since 1992, assesses the industry's progress on various quality characteristics that ultimately affect consumer demand for lamb. The most recent audit, conducted in 2015, primarily focused on the foodservice segment of the industry. As sheep genetics, management practices, available resources, and consumers' needs and expectations constantly evolve, more frequent audits that capture the entire supply-chain should be considered. The 2022 NLQA audit is designed to repeat successful portions of the 2015 audit, including a new supply chain survey to assess perceptions about the U.S. lamb industry and in-plant carcass characteristics. In phase I, 155 surveys were conducted from May 2022 through September 2022 to understand and quantify perceptions of the U.S. lamb industry. The survey was administered using a software package (Qualtrics®, Provo, Utah) customized to develop a structured order of questions for each industry segment. The survey was distributed via in-plant visits, social media, and email. Survey respondents remained anonymous, each taking approximately ten minutes to complete. Statistical analysis was conducted in Microsoft Excel and the Qualtrics® software. Thirty-two states were represented, with 88 percent of respondents identifying as the owner/operator of their respective business or operation and 86 percent representing commercial breeding operations. Respondents were asked to rank topics based on importance to their operation from 1 (least important) to 10 (most important). Animal welfare (8.9), lamb quality (8.4), and sustainability (7.6) were of most importance to producers. Respondents were also prompted to rank significant challenges in the industry (1=most important and 10=least important). The most significant challenges identified were operation costs (3.04), market volatility (3.70), and labor (4.08). Open-ended responses for defining sustainability were sorted and narrowed in terms of descriptions to find commonalities between respondents. Central themes from respondents included environmental stewardship, profitability, and producing high-quality lamb products. Results from the survey will provide valuable insight to discern gaps and opportunities between producers' viewpoints and data collected in plants to develop educational material to improve lamb quality. For phase II, in-plant assessments were conducted in four of the largest U.S. commercial lamb processing facilities across six production days from June to September 2022. On each production day, 50 percent of carcasses harvested and chilled were surveyed. Both hide-on and hide-off carcasses (n=2,605) and chilled carcasses (n=2,464) were surveyed. On the harvest floor, trained auditors collected data on mud scores, breed type, presence of horns, sex, wool length, and physiological age indicator data. Additionally, hot carcass weight (HCW), measured fat thickness (MFT), and reported USDA yield and quality grades were collected in the cooler. The distribution and summary functions of JMP® Software were used to determine the frequency distributions, means, standard deviations, and minimum and maximum values. Data was analyzed using the Type III ANOVA procedure, and a pairwise comparison was analyzed for dependent variables by treatment using the least squared means procedure in the 'lsmeans' package, of R© with the Tukey HSD adjustment. Dependent variables were YG, calculated YG, HCW, and MFT. Significance was determined at P-value ≤ 0.05. Phase II used in-plant assessments to benchmark current carcass quality characteristics related value of the fed lamb and mutton industry in the U.S. Among the carcasses (n = 1,605) that were audited for sex, 63.2 percent were wethers, 31.5 percent ewes, and 5.3 percent rams. Two percent of the carcasses were presented with horns. Of the 2,604 carcasses evaluated, 40.2 percent were speckle-faced (white-face and black-face cross), 38.8 percent were white-faced, 18.3 percent were black-faced, 1.46 percent had natural characteristics, and 1.72 percent were hair sheep. The average mud score was 2.12, and the average wool length was 5.03 cm. Additionally, 87.1 percent of the 2,437 carcasses presented two break joints indicating lamb, 5.70 percent with one break joint indicating yearling mutton, and 7.18 percent with no break joints indicating mutton. The average HCW (n=2,464) was 39.9 kg, whereas the MFT was 0.97 cm. The USDA stamped yield grade was 2.71 and 68.5 percent graded choice (CH), 22.6 percent graded prime (PR), and 8.9 percent were not graded. The 2022 NLQA in-plant survey of carcass quality characteristics will provide a current benchmark for carcass characteristics of lamb processed in the U.S. The data from this study can help industry segments to understand and develop strategic initiatives to improve the quality of fed lamb and mutton.


Includes bibliographical references.
2023 Fall.

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