Serendip­ity the mother of in­ven­tion

Ge­net­ics and chicory are giv­ing rise to a high­coun­try sheep so tasty that the meat in­dus­try sees it as a po­ten­tial saviour.

New Zealand Listener - - MONEY - by JONATHAN UN­DER­HILL

Lan­guish­ing lamb sales could be in for a boost from a project that aims to pro­duce sheep meat to ri­val wagyu beef. Sheep, which num­ber about 27 mil­lion in this coun­try, are the fourth-most-eaten ­live­stock in the world. But, with con­sump­tion at 1.7kg per capita in 2016, they’re way be­hind chicken (29.9kg), pork (12.3kg) and beef and veal (6.5kg).

This year, New Zealand pro­duced an es­ti­mated 23 mil­lion spring lambs, down 1.3% on 2016. That has global sig­nif­i­cance for lamb sup­plies since, with Aus­tralia, we ac­count for three-quar­ters of the in­ter­na­tional trade in sheep meat.

Most lamb goes into the re­tail chan­nel, which crit­ics say means pro­duc­ers earn com­mod­ity prices for a prod­uct that, on scarcity value alone, should be mak­ing them more. But the Omega Lamb project, a joint ven­ture be­tween farm­ers, ge­neti­cists, agron­o­mists, meat ex­porter Al­liance Group and the Min­istry for ­Pri­mary ­In­dus­tries, is bump­ing a tiny amount of the meat fur­ther up the value chain.

The lamb, which is the prod­uct of a ­breed­ing and tar­geted feed­ing ­pro­gramme, is sold un­der the Te Mana la­bel by ­Al­liance. It’s the ­com­mer­cial end point of a pri­mary growth part­ner­ship (PGP) that grew out of AgRe­search work on mak­ing hardier and fat­ter ewes to cope with high-coun­try farms.

They’ve spawned a ­cham­pion: a melt-in-­the- ­ ­mouth, mild-smelling meat that is be­ing sold for more than prime beef at restau­rants in tri­als in New Zealand and Hong Kong. Par­tic­i­pat­ing chefs have used it in­stead of wagyu beef on sushi. It tar­gets the same mar­bled in­tra­mus­cu­lar fat that melts and makes the meat suc­cu­lent.

Just 60,000 Omega lambs are fore­cast this year from par­tic­i­pat­ing farm­ers, dou­ble the 2016 out­put, and that rate of growth is ex­pected to con­tinue for at

least the next two years. “This is a prod­uct po­si­tioned above health food. Food­ies and health nuts are ex­traor­di­nar­ily de­mand­ing and don’t mind pay­ing good money,” says Tom Sturgess, a nat­u­ralised Kiwi since can­cer spurred him to give up ­cor­po­rate life in the US for run­ning Nel­son-based Lone Star Farms, which pro­duces 70,000 lambs on six prop­er­ties. That’s not to say par­tic­i­pat­ing in the ven­ture is an easy ride, he says.

“This stuff is ex­tremely

­dif­fi­cult to grow. Fas­tid­i­ous care has to be taken to ad­here to the pro­to­cols of the pro­gramme.

“As a farmer, you don’t get to de­cide how you’re go­ing to fin­ish the lamb. The pro­gramme is there to main­tain brand in­tegrity.”

Sturgess says the strat­egy is sim­i­lar to that of NZ King Salmon, which he used to chair and which is now listed on the NZX. “NZ King Salmon – just 0.5% of all the farmed salmon in the world. The chefs love it. It dif­fer­en­ti­ates their restau­rants, and cus­tomers love it,” he says.

LEAN, NOT MEAN

The Omega Lamb pitch runs counter to the way the bulk of New Zealand’s lamb ex­ports are mar­keted. It is a lean prod­uct, in­creas­ingly pack­aged into potready cuts, whereas most ex­port lamb goes to big su­per­mar­kets that wield pric­ing power.

“There needs to be a re­set but­ton for the sheep-meat in­dus­try,” says Pe­ter Rus­sell, Al­liance’s gen­eral man­ager of ­mar­ket­ing. “The in­dus­try has been trapped in the same busi­ness model – all about ­pro­cure­ment – for 120 years.”

He en­sured Omega Lamb didn’t go down the tra­di­tional re­tail route. “Clearly, lamb is suf­fer­ing. What my par­ents used to eat isn’t trendy, isn’t cool – ex­cept maybe in a ke­bab.”

But top restau­rants are al­ways ­look­ing for new prod­ucts that are at­trac­tive and cook well to serve to con­sumers who are will­ing to pay a pre­mium, and fat is back in vogue for lamb. How­ever, what’s wanted isn’t sub­cu­ta­neous fat but in­tra­mus­cu­lar fat, or mar­bling; that’s also a char­ac­ter­is­tic of wagyu beef.

Omega lambs are the prod­uct of four sheep breeds – texel, rom­ney, peren­dale and finn (finnish lan­drace) – reared through a com­bi­na­tion of ge­net­ics and feed­ing regimes by farmer-owned ­com­pany Head­wa­ters. They have been bred for traits in­clud­ing their abil­ity to take up and re­tain omega 3 fats, and are fed chicory, a nat­u­ral source of the oil. The re­sult is meat with com­par­a­tively high pro­por­tions of omega 3 and polyun­sat­u­rated fats.

The AgRe­search work that un­der­pins the project found that ewes with higher in­tra­mus­cu­lar fat lev­els thrived on high-­coun­try farms, rou­tinely pro­duc­ing twins. A “long

­jour­ney of study” fol­lowed, says PGP man­ager Mike Tate. ­“Ge­net­ics, big lifts in omega 3 and big serendip­ity at the end.”

The happy out­come was “this tastes fan­tas­tic. That was the start­ing point of the PGP – the re­al­i­sa­tion that we can ­pro­duce an­i­mals with re­ally high omega 3 and maybe mar­ket the meat. Six years of sci­ence and breed­ing and ­play­ing around with for­ag­ing and then we thought we were onto some­thing.”

The Gov­ern­ment has put

$12.5 mil­lion into the project over seven years, the same as the other part­ners, for a fore­cast eco­nomic ben­e­fit of up to $400 mil­lion over 25 years.

Sturgess says he learnt in his for­mer life as a meat-in­dus­try ex­ec­u­tive that the best re­turns are made by sell­ing di­rect to ­cus­tomers such as top ­restau­rants. Re­tail­ers “are the last peo­ple I wanted to sell to be­cause they have all the power. With an ul­tra-pre­mium prod­uct like this, we don’t like to sell it to re­tail­ers.”

Sean Mar­shall, head chef at ­Welling­ton’s Mat­ter­horn Restau­rant, which has been try­ing out the Omega-pro­duced lamb, is pos­i­tive about it.

“The flavour pro­file and juici­ness that come from the in­tra­mus­cu­lar fat is quite ex­cep­tional without leav­ing a fatty film on the palate that can come from other breeds,” he says. “I was among a group of chefs who tested the new breed last year and at the time was blown away.”

That’s the sort of feed­back that gives in­vestors in the project con­fi­dence about in­creas­ing pro­duc­tion.

“Lamb is suf­fer­ing. What my par­ents used to eat isn’t trendy, isn’t cool – ex­cept maybe in a ke­bab.”

Above, sheep from the Omega Lamb project that are des­tined for the restau­rant trade.

Left, Mike Tate (top) and

Pe­ter Rus­sell.

Lus­cious lamb: a sheep breed that thrives in the New Zealand high coun­try is wow­ing restau­ra­teurs.

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