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Woerner: Lamb industry doesn’t have a tenderness issue but sees challenge with strong flavors

by Wyoming Livestock Roundup

Greeley, Colo. – Producers and other participants in Sheep Day at the recent Colorado Farm Show were treated to a taste sampling of lamb prepared different ways. 

Dale Woerner, associate professor with the Colorado State University (CSU) Department of Animal Sciences Center for meat safety and quality, asked the public to compare the flavor of American lamb with New Zealand lamb. 

During taste tests, Woerner questioned the group about flavor. Some people in the room preferred the milder flavor of American lamb, while others liked the taste of grass-fed New Zealand lamb. 

“Tenderness is not an issue in lamb meat. Consumers know what they want,” he says. 

Flavor impacts

What a lamb is fed can impact its flavor, Woerner explains. Alfalfa and other legumes, like clover, put a more bold flavor into lamb and other red meats. 

“What they eat changes the way they taste. Diet is one of the primary influencers of meat. Highly digestible lush pastures that are high in protein but comparatively low in energy create compounds that create a stronger flavor,” he says.

While he doesn’t feel weight is a good indicator of flavor, background and maturity have the greatest impact, he continues. 

“We don’t know what impact breed has, but we do know that age alone is not a good indicator of flavor in lamb meat,” he explains. 

As an example, Woerner compared a Rambouillet and Suffolk. The Rambouillet will mature at a lighter weight sooner than a Suffolk, which will continue to grow and mature at a heavier weight, he explains. 

“If they are killed at the same age, they are still different maturities, and it will impact the flavor. If both the Rambouillet and the Suffolk are killed at 14 months, the Rambouillet will have a stronger flavor because it is more mature,” he says.

As fat becomes more unsaturated, it makes the taste stronger. 

“There is a lot of range in lamb flavor in different ages of lamb. It causes a lot of variation in taste,” he says. 

Eating satisfaction

An American lamb quality in retail and foodservice markets study by the American Sheep Industry Association shows eating satisfaction is the most important quality trait for lamb. 

“The majority of consumers – 71 percent – are willing to pay a premium for improved eating satisfaction,” the study shows. “If eating satisfaction can be guaranteed, consumers were willing to pay an average premium of 18.6 percent.” 


An instrument is available that can detect the chemistry of lamb to distinguish whether the lamb was grain or grass fed. 

Lamb flavor can be distinguished by a specific eight- to 10-carbon branched chain of fatty acids (BCFA) that are the primary contributors of distinctive lamb flavor, Woerner says. 

“A 4-methylactonoic acid (MOA) has the most influence on mutton flavor. MOA increases 13-fold in rams and 1.3 fold in wethers after sexual maturity. BCFAs are lowest in lambs less than one year old, intermediate in sheep one to two years old and greatest in sheep over two,” he explains. 

Woerner would like to see the industry develop a process that can detect if a lamb has mild, medium or bold flavors. The technology exists but hasn’t been utilized in the processing industry. 

One of the first machines developed to detect flavor took 15 minutes to analyze one sample, Woerner says. 

However, new technology has produced a machine that can do it in seconds. A study at CSU showed this machine was able to calculate flavor accurately 82 percent of the time. 

“The hardest flavors for it to differentiate between are mild and medium flavor. It showed the most accuracy on strong flavored lamb,” he says. 

If a machine could be used that was highly accurate, Woerner says it could increase lamb consumption. 

“All it takes right now is one bad eating experience or one bad smell while eating lamb for the consumer to never buy it again. We have to find ways to differentiate lamb flavor so consumers will like it and buy it over and over again,” he says.

“Everyone has a different taste, but there are plenty of consumers out there who will buy mild-flavored lamb, if nothing else,” he continues. “Most consumers prefer the mild flavored lamb because most of the consumers in this country don’t eat lamb.”

Focus on the niche

Woerner tells sheep producers it would be a mistake to expand the sheep industry to the point it is a commodity market. 

“The reason we are broke in agriculture is because we are raising commodity products. We are paid based on quantity,” he says. “In a niche market, we are producing and supplying a product. I don’t think the sheep industry should ever strive to be a commodity business. We should just focus on what we are doing and do it better.” 

“We need to do a better job of marketing our product, so we can command a premium for it,” he explains. 

Gayle Smith is a correspondent for the Wyoming Livestock Roundup. Send comments on this article to

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