The Van Trump Report

How Come Americans Don’t Like Eating Sheep?

America may be known as a red meat-loving country but when it comes to lamb and mutton we tend to be a little more finicky than many other countries. Lamb rarely gets served in US homes outside of special holidays and mutton is nearly impossible to find in a grocery store. It’s particularly mysterious when you realize that before WWII, per capita annual consumption averaged over 7 pounds. Today, that number is down to just over 1 pound. So what happened to eating sheep?

As with most big shifts, the decline of America’s sheep industry is not the result of just one thing so it’s more useful to take a look back at the full history. Early American settlers used sheep for both their fabric needs as well as food, but beyond local farms, there was not much of a market for lamb or mutton. However, in the early 19th century, the growth of the US wool industry led to an increase in meat output as sheep were typically slaughtered once they passed their peak wool production years.

Keep in mind, this was before cars and mass transit were around so butcher shops were limited to the meat that local farmers had available. Still, people typically only ate it when nothing else was available. The sheep meat market remained more of a byproduct of the wool market up until the mid-1800s when wealthy people in cities developed a taste for mutton and lamb. The meat was more expensive than most other animal proteins at the time, which added to its appeal for the rich. That began to fade though, as production increased toward the end of the century and lamb at mutton prices became more affordable.

At the same time, the US beef industry was ramping up. In the West, between 1870 and 1920, a series of armed conflicts known as the “sheep and cattle wars” took place. At least 54 men were killed and some 50,000 to over 100,000 sheep were slaughtered. Generally, the cattlemen saw the sheepherders as invaders, who destroyed the public grazing lands, which they had to share on a first-come, first-served basis. Cattle ranchers had been around a lot longer in the West, though, and had strong ties to local politicians and businesses, including the big meatpackers.

Meatpackers preferred beef and once refrigerated rail cars were developed, they were really able to dominate what was made available to American consumers. Lamb and mutton also fell out of favor with the wealthy as it became seen as a meat mostly being consumed by immigrants. Meatpackers promoted beef as the “American” meat and wealthy city people fell in love with big, expensive steaks.

Bad luck intensified for the sheep industry in the early 1900s as stories spread of meatpackers selling lower-grade mutton and goat meat as lamb. Several disease outbreaks also raised concerns about the safety of eating sheep. Then in 1917 during WWI, the US launched a campaign to discourage people from eating sheep because they were needed for wool. The sheep meat that was available therefore came from older and much gamier ewes, which further eroded its popularity.

Lamb and mutton consumption was actually on the rise by the late 1930s but war again dealt the industry a blow. While US troops in Europe got some meat from local farms, most of it was shipped from the states. That meant it had to be canned, jarred, concentrated, and otherwise preserved. One of the meats that canned well and was widely available was mutton. Unfortunately, the military suppliers were not particularly discerning so the meat wasn’t the best quality. By all accounts, it was awful, and after eating two to three cans of the terrible stuff a day, many soldiers understandably never wanted to eat lamb or mutton again. Subsequently, almost an entire generation of kids never tasted the meat from a sheep, and neither did their kids, etc.  
For those wondering what the difference is between lamb and mutton: Lamb is meat from young sheep under one year of age. Some butchers also distinguish lamb into two different categories – Regular “lamb” is meat from an older lamb (around one year), while “spring lamb” is under three months. As lamb is a younger animal, the meat hasn’t had time to develop as much flavor—thus, it is mild with a faint, grassy flavor. Mutton is the meat of mature sheep, typically harvested between 2 to 3 years of age. As a result, they have more fat and muscles, giving mutton a strong, gamey flavor similar to goat, venison, or wild boar. (Sources: USDA, Boston Globe, Epicurious, Wiki)

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *