US imports of sheep meat rocket up

The US breeding flock stood at 3.83 million head on the 1 January 2018, 1% smaller than year earlier levels, according to the latest data from the USDA. In total there were 5.23 million sheep in the US on 1 January. Texas and California have the largest sheep populations standing at 750,000 head and 570,000 head respectively.

In January and February this year, US production of sheep meat totalled 11,000 tonnes, 3% (363 tonnes) higher year-on-year. US lamb slaughterings stood at 325,700 head, 2% (5,700) higher than the same period last year. However, US domestic production is expected to decline slightly over the coming years.

US production of sheep meat

The US sheep industry has been in long term decline although it has shown some stability in recent years. Sheep meat production, which includes meat from both lambs and adults sheep, declined by 59% (93,900 tonnes) from 1985 to 2017, to 65,800 tonnes. The number of lambs slaughtered in the US has declined by 64% (3,690,200 head) between 1985 and 2017, to 2,064,000 head.

Per capita domestic consumption of lamb is low, but even so, in 2017 the US was the world’s second largest importer of sheep meat having imported 101,100 tonnes during the year, increasing by 17% (15,000 tonnes) on the year, according to data from the US Department of Commerce and Bureau of Census. Just over 70% of all sheep meat imported came from Australia with most of the remaining balance from New Zealand. US imports of sheep meat for the first two months of 2018 stand at 19,900 tonnes, 7.5% (1,400 tonnes) higher year-on-year.

US sheep meat imports

In the US, consumers, especially millennials, are increasingly becoming more adventurous in their eating, which includes a willingness to try proteins such as lamb. Lamb is often an unfamiliar protein to many Americans in part due to both a lack of widespread availability and also a limited knowledge of how to cook it. Lamb consumption lags quite some way behind the consumption of pork, beef and poultry. Out of the home, lamb is most often available in fine dining restaurants however increasingly it is becoming available in quick service, and casual dining restaurants.

US domestic lamb prices have not followed suit with the global price rally in 2017. In February 2018, the US choice and prime measure taken from San Angelo, Texas stood at $133.75 per 100lbs, $5.50 below year earlier levels. Currently the March price is an estimate and stands at $135.50, which narrows the gap between this year and last year to $3.88.

Looking towards post-Brexit, with  the US relying so heavily on sheep meat imports, should the UK secure a trade deal with the US there could be the potential for the UK sheep meat sector to diversify away from the traditional export destinations, many of which are other EU countries. The UK has not been able to ship red meat to the US since the 1990s, but reports have suggested that the US could be willing to re-open the US market to UK exports of sheep meat. However, it is unclear if and when this will happen.

Rebecca Oborne AHDB