July 15, 2003
Utah Wool Growers Test-Market ?Convenience? Lamb: Three new Heat ?n Eat lamb dishes, along with lamb ?medallions,? hold promise for Utah sheep producers.
By Tharran E. Gaines
Like most members of the Utah Wool Growers Association, Clark Willis would like to see a bigger market for lamb products. Nationwide, consumers eat about 1.5 pounds of lamb annually, compared to 60 pounds of beef and 50 pounds of pork.
Fortunately, as the president and director of the state association, Willis and his colleagues aren?t content to sit back and wait for it to improve. They?re taking matters into their own hands by writing grant applications and test marketing a new line of ?heat and eat? and ?quick serve? lamb products. And they?re seeing a lot of potential growth in the lamb market.
According to Willis, the Utah lamb products were developed as a cooperative effort between the Utah Wool Growers Association, Utah State University, AgriSolutions and the Utah Agriculture Department. Their efforts have already resulted in focus group studies of four new products.
?We actually got started with a matching grant from the state for $20,000, where if the wool growers put up $20,000, the state would match it,? Willis explains, crediting Jim Ure, a principal in AgriSolutions L.L.C, and Richard Sparks, with the Utah Department of Agriculture for their help in writing the grant pplications. ?However, we no more than received that grant than the U. S. Department of Agriculture came out with a grant program for rural development. So with some help from a couple of other people, we wrote an application for that grant and received another $400,000.?
Using that money, the Utah Wool Growers Association developed and test marketed line of pre-cooked microwaveable products that centered around Heat ?n Eat Barbecue Lamb, a lamb curry product and lamb in garlic sauce. The barbecued lamb, in fact, was even available in Utah?s Olympics Store during the 2002 Winter Games, where it proved to be a popular choice.
That wasn?t the end of the research, however. Working with the Utah State University meat lab and Unifoods, which specializes in reconstituted meat products, the Utah Wool Growers Association and its cooperative partners also came up with a product called lamb ?medallions.? These are essentially small steaks made from reconstituted lamb shoulder.
?The lamb medallions have actually proven to be more popular in our test marketing than the Heat ?n Eat products,? says Willis. ?They?re not yet available as a pre-cooked item, but we think we can eventually get to that point. However, you can still go from freezer to table in about 10 minutes.?
As the Logan, Utah, producer explains, all four products are made from the front shoulders, utilizing meat that has been separated from the bone. In the case of the medallions, the tissue and fat are also removed and the remaining meat is reconstituted into a product that has little resemblance to its source.
?The reason we?re using the shoulders,? Willis relates, ?is because, traditionally, this is one of the most challenging pieces of meat to move. So we?re basically trying to add value to cuts that don?t normally rank up there with leg of lamb, lamb chops, loins, shanks, etc. That?s really why we got the grant in the first place.
?You can tell the difference between the medallions and a quality lamb chop,? he admits, ?but it?s still a very good piece of meat. Most importantly, our focus groups have shown that the medallions are very well received by consumers. So that will be the focus of our advertising and additional research and development.?
The next step, of course, is taking the new lamb products, which will contain 100 percent Utah lamb, to the commercial market. Assisting in that effort is a brokerage firm that is working to place the product with supermarkets and restaurants in the Salt Lake City area. They?re also getting help from another surprising source -- the KSL radio and television network.
?We are particularly grateful to KSL because they have literally donated $400,000 worth of air time on their television and radio stations to promote the products,? Willis explains. ?In fact, we feel the air time will benefit the Utah Wool Growers Association with more than just the sale of these new products. We believe it will help raise awareness of lamb and the sheep industry in general.?
Willis says it is ironic that lamb consumption is actually higher per capita along the nation?s coasts and in cities like New York than it is in the states that rank highest in sheep production.
?Right now, we?re limited to marketing within the state of Utah by the specific requirements of the grant,? he continues. ?However, if the product is successful, we would like to pursue an additional grant or locate investors to take our products to the parts of the country where lamb is already popular.
?The thing that sheep producers have never been able to offer consumers is convenience and quick preparation,? Willis concludes. ?So we believe this will make it much easier for the American housewife to give lamb a try.?