Sheep Producers Australia recently undertook an international trade and market investigation trip to the US in February, with the support of Meat & Livestock Australia (MLA). The US is Australia’s second-largest lamb market, with over $700 million worth of sheepmeat per year exported to the US per year.
SPA CEO Graham Smith, Board Chair Chris Mirams and Board Director Jamie Heinrich were invited to the American Sheep Industry (ASI) Convention.
The US sheep industry is concerned by a high percentage of lamb being imported, fundamentally from Australia and New Zealand. Trade has become a political weapon, so being able to engage with the American industry and having the voice of Australian farmers heard is important for Australia to protect its market access and share.
Mr Smith said good relationships have been built up over the last five years and they do count, as they can influence political representatives in Washington.
MLA International Business Manager Rob Williams also arranged a series of meetings for SPA to build relationships and engage with key stakeholders including politicians and industry leaders to discuss current thinking on the sheep industry and exports.
Understanding US consumer trends
The trip was also an important step in developing the next Meat Industry Strategic Plan (MISP), to be developed later this year, by learning about current and emerging food trends.
Mr Smith said it is important to appreciate that farmers are in the food business.
“There are rapidly emerging changes, including millennials now being the largest consumer group in America and they are thinking differently about food compared to many of their parents,” he said.
“Snacking and eating on-the-go is driving the development of new convenient products, including semi prepared meals. Many are also more adventurous in their food choices, including alternative proteins.
“So we need to engage more to understand how they are thinking and behaving, more so than the past, because it will determine the major products they will eat and what we need to export.”
Discussions with a range of wholesale supermarkets and major food service companies provided some valuable insights, including Costco, Sysco and Wholefood Supermarkets. These are major sectors of the US food market and often provide consumers with their first exposure to lamb.
The visit to Sysco – a US$50 billion company – demonstrated the power and importance of America’s food service sector, particularly restaurants.
Many Americans do very little cooking and in fact, their first experience of lamb is often at a restaurant.
SPA saw how Sysco are expecting suppliers to do and fund product development. It is going to be essential for Australian producers to engage even more with the major retail channels if this market is not only to be protected but expanded as well.
SPA also attended the Lamb and Culinary Medicine Workshop to further investigate the role lamb can play in a healthy lifestyle and approaches to international consumption trends.
“It is important to recognise that American’s attitude to food is very different to ours,” Mr Smith said.
“Their consumption patterns are very different, with their national food appearing to be burgers and chips, with about 50 percent of American beef consumed this way.
There are less than five million sheep in America. Overall, Americans eat very little lamb in comparison to Australians.
The two distinct opportunities to increase consumption are through select immigrant groups who are used to lamb, and those in the 18-35 age bracket. Like domestic trends, another opportunity for lamb is where consumers are more likely to eat different products as a special occasion or experience meal.
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