Messing with the definition for “spring lambs” will only enrich foreign importers while fooling American consumers, say domestic producers who’ve submitted comments opposing a petition to make “spring lambs” a year-round phenomena.

“This petition is not being driven by the American sheep and lamb industry nor consumers but by a foreign interest desiring to expand its presence in the U.S. lamb market and market a lamb product to consumers that are misleading,” says America’s sheep industry leaders.

“Spring lambs” have long referred to those lambs born in late winter or early spring.

But on Sept.5, The Lamb Co. asked USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) to repeal the regulatory definition of “spring lamb” for being “obsolete and unnecessary.” The Lamb Co. wants to label lamb as “spring lamb,” regardless of what the calendar says.

The Lamb Co. is owned by a New Zealand-Australian cooperative and runs its North American operations out of Etobicoke, Ontario, Canada.  It’s petition was submitted to FSIS by its K Street lawyers in Washington D.C.

As it turns out, however, the 100,000 sheep farmers and ranchers who produce America’s lamb and wool want to keep the phrase “spring lambs” as it has always been. They take a strong exception to “spring lambs” being called “a historical artifact” by a foreign competitor.

The American Sheep Industry Association, on Oct 14, expressed its opposition to the Lamb Co. petition. It went on record in support of FSIS’s current definition for spring lamb and “genuine spring lamb.”

Those terms apply to lamb carcasses slaughtered from March through the first Monday in October. The Lamb Co. seeks year-round use of those terms.

“U.S. imports of lamb meat have increased significantly over the last two decades. Australia and New Zealand supply nearly all (99.5 percent) of U.S. lamb imports and directly compete with U.S. lamb,” Benny Cox wrote to FSIS.

He is president of the American Sheep Industry Association. Among other points Cox makes are these:

  • As defined “spring lamb” and “genuine spring lamb” accurately describes spring lamb based on the U.S. seasonal production in which lambs are born in the spring and summer months based on production factors (i.e. forage supplies) and, importantly, to supply the market at peak consumer demand (i.e. Easter holiday),
  •  American consumers expect when purchasing “spring lamb” or “genuine spring lamb” to be exactly such, lambs born during the northern hemisphere season. The American lamb industry has devoted significant resources to develop marketing programs and consumer trust in purchasing “spring lamb” and “genuine spring lamb.”
  • As with any product definition or branded programs, companies must plan accordingly. It is not the agency’s responsibility to amend product definitions to allow a specific company to avoid the costs of having to change its production and marketing model.
  • We also point out that the issues stated by the petitioner about “having to pull product” and “must market its products under two different sets of labeling. . .” are also issues faced by the U.S. and Australian lamb industry stakeholders. None of which have petitioned the Agency to change the definition. Thus, we can presume that those companies are able to supply and market spring lamb products per the regulation. Regardless of what the petitioner can market in Canada, this is a U.S. agency definition and a U.S. market, not a North American market.
  • We do not argue that imports from Australia and New Zealand account for about one-half of the total annual supply of lamb meat in the U.S. and international market factors have a greater impact on the American lamb industry today than in the past.
  • As noted above, imported lamb is often sold at a lower price point than American lamb. However, we are concerned that the objective of the petition is to increase lamb sales in the U.S. (most likely at a lower price) and increase its market share, which will negatively impact U.S. lamb producers, industry stakeholders, and the sustainability of the U.S. sheep and lamb industry.
  • It will also impact consumer welfare in that false advertising will occur as consumers expect “spring lamb” and “genuine spring lamb” to be produced in accordance with the northern hemisphere seasonal patterns. This definition applies to the U.S. lamb market and regulations in other countries, such as Canada, are irrelevant. If a company opts to market its product in different countries, it is the obligation of the company to comply vs. change the regulations to meet its needs.
  • The petition references chefs, the foodservice sector, and comments from industry as stating the term “spring lamb” is outdated. We question the references as being a selective few, outdated, and cited out of context. Instead, we recommend the agency review comments from industry stakeholders that are supplying and marketing “spring lamb” and “genuine spring lamb” per the definition and refer to a marketplace that does support the need for the definition.

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