Lamb definition divide erupts between states as submission deadline nears

Terry Sim, November 27, 2017

Will this hogget with one incisor out soon be called lamb?

VICTORIA’S peak farmer body is opposing the changing of Australia’s definition for lamb, citing a risk of compromising product quality and calling for a business case for the move.

Australian lamb industry stakeholders have only until November 29 to make submissions to a lamb definition consultation paper distributed by the former Sheepmeat Council of Australia, now superseded by Sheep producers Australia Ltd.

Australia’s AUS-MEAT language currently defines lamb as a female, castrated or entire male up to 12 months of age with no erupted permanent incisor teeth, whereas New Zealand defines lamb as a sheep under 12 months of age or which does not have any permanent incisor teeth in wear.

The SCA’s Lamb Definition Consultation Paper is proposing a change of the lamb definition to allow for the eruption of permanent incisors, but without either incisor being in wear, consistent with New Zealand’s criteria. A national public consultation period on the definition of lamb among producers and meat supply chain members ends on November 29.

Victorian Farmers Federation Livestock Group president Leonard Vallance said specialist prime lamb producers maximised the efficiencies of their operations to finish a quick growth high weight gain product for the market.

He believes the proposed change in the definition of Australian lamb will lead to the compromising of the value of the current product.

“If you change the definition, then it is open to interpretation.”

Mr Vallance said the United Kingdom and the European Union, big importers of New Zealand lamb, used the same definition as Australia for lamb.

“New Zealand’s lamb production is actually shrinking, so why is that happening if it is so much better?”

The VFF would like to see uptake of objective carcase measurement of lamb across the Australian processing sector – DEXA in every plant – to allow the change to a meat eating quality-based system.

“Until you have that in place, you are running the risk of compromising the value of the lamb brand.”

Mr Vallance believed the move to change the lamb definition was being driven by Western Australia and also to allow first cross wether lambs more time to be marketed from feedlots.

“The Western Australian lamb production system is notorious for being cut off by dry springs and they have all these lambs they can’t finish, so they put them in feedlots, feed them on lupins and guess what happens – they pop their teeth out.”

Mr Vallance said the VFF would also like to see a business case for the lamb definition change before an industry decision was made.

“As far as I am aware Western Australia is the only state that is pushing for it, and some individuals on the Sheep Producers Australia board.

“Is it progress, that’s what I am questioning?”

Mr Vallance said a factor in the move to change the definition was the lack of returns in running Merino wethers for wool production, until recently.

“So instead of turning off wethers, they are trying to turn off lamb, and they need to understand that their product doesn’t quite match what the high end specialist lamb producers produce.

“It’s a bit like comparing yak in a box to Wagyu.”

Mr Vallance said the lamb definition proposal would be “the first big test” for the new Sheep Producers Australia board, with nominees selected on a skills basis, but elected by state farming organisation delegates.

“This will quite clearly define a moment, won’t it?”

Western Australian industry supports definition change

Pastoralists and Graziers Association Livestock Committee chairman Chris Patmore said there was not much reason not be in favour of a change in the lamb definition.

“It’s been something we’ve been pushing for for 20 years and it is just a sensible move for all parties.

“It avoids that cliff-face pricing you get when the first two teeth appear and they appear with very little notice,” he said.

“It gives you a few more weeks before the first incisor becomes in wear.

“It’s usually two to five weeks before the first one comes into wear and that gives you enough time to move the sheep on or get them slaughtered.”

He believes there is evidence showing no eating quality difference in lambs who have just cut their first permanent incisor.

“The whole Western Australia industry, including processors, is unanimous on this as far as I can gather.”

WAFarmers Livestock Council executive officer Kim Haywood said the WA lamb industry wanted to harmonise Australia’s lamb definition with New Zealand. She said it would give WA producers the chance to market their lambs with attracting a big discount from processors, estimated to average $60 a head for lambs who have just cut their first permanent incisor.

“It is a big discount for our producers, but it’s a huge issue for our processors trying to make up contract consignments.”

Ms Haywood said the current Australian definition of a lamb can cause issues across the supply chain, and that the industry was losing out.

“Sheep producers can mouth sheep in the yards only to find a percentage of lambs are discounted by approximately $50 to $60 per head on arrival at the abattoir because their teeth have erupted,” she said.

“Our processors are losing out as they struggle to source enough lamb to meet growing orders for lamb domestically and internationally.”

Ms Haywood said WAFarmers had put forward a strong submission to the Sheepmeat Council of Australia earlier this year, describing the anti-competitive nature of the current Australian definition and demonstrated the need to amend the definition to reflect that of New Zealand by the end of 2017.

“As a result of this submission, along with other advocacy work in this space, a national consultation  period has been triggered,” she said.

“The feedback period is now open, allowing producers and supply chain stakeholders to have their say on whether the definition should be changed.

“WAFarmers has been pushing this issue for nearly a decade, so we implore producers across the state and the country as a whole to recognise the need for an updated definition so that we can secure our markets and put more money back into producers’ pockets.”

Other states yet to finalise positions

The Livestock SA board will discuss making a submission on the issue next Monday and the Tasmanian Farmers and Graziers Association’s meat council will discuss it later this week.

NSW Farmers sheep meat committee Ian Cargill said the association has left it up to its members to make individual submissions.

Lamb industry stakeholders can make a submission on the definition issue and send it to [email protected] or complete a short online survey:

Click here to read the SCA Lamb Language Public Consultation paper.

Click here to read the Holmes Sackett interim report on the implications in changing the lamb definition.


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  1. James Jackson, November 30, 2017

    A couple of comments
    1) New Zealand lamb is defined as teeth in wear, but few lambs in New Zealand test this definition. Their production system means the majority of the lambs are sold well before teeth eruption. It is interesting New Zealand lamb is usually regarded as better than Australian lamb in markets we both are involved in. This may in part be because generally it is a lighter younger product.
    2) The sheep New Zealand have mature at a younger age. Merinos in Australia break teeth quite late compared with other breeds.
    3) There is no eating quality information underpinning this proposed change. The (former) Sheepmeat Council of Australia has misled the consultation process by inferring that the eating quality work comparing animals before and after eruption means that the proposed change will have no effect on eating quality. The work that needs to be done is comparing suckers with yearling product, especially the legs, then determining whether the eating quality of the category is shifted to the right by ageing the category.
    4) There is an issue of ‘who owns the lamb brand?’ There has been a huge investment by producers under the present definition. Should the decision be made by the owners?
    5) We already see grids with new season lamb premiums. Is this change merely going to change where the price cliff falls?
    6) Is this change going to delay the implementation of a cuts-based system of discovering value in a carcase? Loin cuts maintain eating quality for a long time, while legs are not so good at keeping their quality.

    As predominantly a Saxon Merino breeder, this may mean I can get wether lambs up to weight to market them, though the wool is worth too much at the moment.
    However, I would urge caution making this change on the limited information available at the moment. I am disappointed with the quality of the consultation paper the SCA has created. Not so much consultation as a bit more of managing the debate.

  2. tom casey, November 28, 2017

    Thank God the VFF is more worried about selling or keeping Farrer House, or whatever it’s called. This being its main agenda. It is a bit like the AWU; not relevent anymore.

  3. Stuart Barkla, November 28, 2017

    I support allowing the inclusion of lambs with two teeth just erupted no wear as ‘lamb’ under the new classification.

  4. Geoffrey Bilney, November 28, 2017

    There is no compromising of the product quality by changing the definition of lamb to the same as the largest exporter of sheep meat in the world, namely New Zealand. Trial work has been done showing lambs raised under the same system, those with their incisors up but not in wear, are of the same eating quality as those that don’t.
    Take an Australian lamb with its teeth up but not in wear fly it across the ditch and process it, that animal would be allowed to sit on the shelf in the United Kingdom or the European Union as lamb, whereas in Australia it would be priced as mutton.
    Sheep Producers Australia board needs to make a decision. Let’s not go down the path as called for by the VFF of a business plan, more talk and more procrastination.
    The science shows no difference in eating quality. Let’s give farmers some flexibility to move those animals prior to been down graded and let’s level the playing field with New Zealand.
    Change the definition to exactly the same as New Zealand.

  5. Courtney Sutherland, November 27, 2017

    Mr Valance, do you realise that western Australia is only asking for a national standard that is recognised by our competing partners in New Zealand? Are you so selfish to not accept the fact that as a nation we compete in a global market?
    As a Victorian, your domestic market is very cosy, but you also have product that is available to the world. Last time I looked at a map of Australia, it included a few other states and territories, who are allowed an opinion under our constitution. We need to grow the industry, not just for the few, but for the whole of industry.

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