Thursday, June 14, 2007

Why Americans don't eat mutton

A long time ago, I posted a poll on the right about mutton (meat from sheep). I found most respondents had tried and liked mutton. Mutton is a common food in other countries, but not in the U.S. It’s expensive if you get it at a restaurant, and you can rarely find it in groceries.
Why don’t Americans eat mutton?
Some would argue that there isn’t a demand for it because Americans don’t like the taste. The poll I ran seemed to contradict that. I love mutton. My dad buys it from a sheep farmer in western Kentucky. The Moonlight in Owensboro, KY (a barbecue hotbed) is one of the few places where you can get barbecue mutton, quite tasty. (Check out this additional post for more on mutton barbecue.) 
The New York Times’ R.W. Apple, Jr. says “most Americans have never tasted mutton,” but “It wasn't always so, and there was in fact a time when mutton was common on American tables.”
Apple thinks it might be because preferences changed. G.I.s in WWII got sick of the canned mutton they were shipped from overseas and wanted nothing to do with it when they got home. However, I think there’s a more plausible economic reason. (Economists aren’t comfortable talking about peoples’ preferences changing, so I immediately discount Apple’s hypothesis).
“Most of the tiny quantity of mutton eaten in America today arrives here frozen from Australia and New Zealand, according to John Gurner of Pilot Brands of Lake Tahoe, Nev., a big importing company, and tends to be used in curries and other spicy dishes.”
A quick read of a Sheep Industry publication tells me that there are no tariffs or quotas on lamb imports. This may account for some of the decline in the sheep-raising industry in the U.S., but not for the lack lamb on the market.
So, if there was a demand, mutton should be widely available at cheap import prices.
Sheep have 2 economic uses: Wool and meat. If the price of wool is higher than the price of meat, then farmers would be wise to shear more and butcher less.
From 1955 to 1995, sheep farmers were heavily subsidized by the government to produce wool through the Wool Act. Price supports of 85-115% of market value were given to farmers through U.S. tax dollars. This is primarily because after WWII, people switched from using wool to synthetic fibers. The farmers were hurt by this, and thus got the government to pay them since the market wouldn’t bear the price of their product (subsidies were $122 million from 1990-1993 alone). Thus, farmers could earn more money producing wool than selling mutton.
The price of other meats relative to mutton also fell, and consumers switched to eating more beef. The mutton industry contracted. In 1993, the Wool Act was phased out, and artificially low domestic prices through government subsidies got higher and the sheep-rearing industry contracted further. As sheep-rearing contracts, so does the number of sheep available for breeding and later slaughter. The relatively low price of beef means that mutton stays relatively expensive, and thus most American’s aren’t trying it.
So, the Wool Act ensured that farmers would raise sheep for wool, not meat. This limited the supply and raised the price of mutton, for which cheaper meats were a substitute. By the time the subsidy was phased out, the demand for mutton was nil as most who had tasted it had died off, and the decline in sheep farming further limited domestic supply.
Hence, we have the situation where most Americans have never tasted the meat. Maybe the government should subsidize mutton production for 3 years and allow cheaper mutton to flood the market. Then, Americans could try it, see how much they like it, and demand will increase (and the subsidies could be eliminated).
Wait, did I just advocate a subsidy? Maybe it would be worth it to find mutton at the local Wal Mart.


Ryan said...

I like me some mutton

JTapp said...

We need to find us somewhere to get us some.

Ryan said...

The only way I ever got some was from a person who would kill the lambs to have us over
Eat was fresh and tender and gooood!!

ellisjardepawa said...

Few years back I got a craving for mutton stew. Could not (in Seattle) find it anywhere. Not only that, none of the so-called "butchers" in grocery chains had ever heard the word. Didn't have a clue what I was asking for. I even tried the specialist meat counter at Pike Place Mkt. and couldn't find it--I seem to recall one of the older guys knew what it was and offered to special order it, but by then, the cost was out of sight. And now, a leg of lamb--frozen, from N.Z., is over $40. A whole beef tongue is nearly as much. Such idiocy.--ljardine

Alan Oak said...

I *knew* it had something to do with the price of wool! However, I thought maybe synthetics had decreased the wool demand,forcing sheep ranchers to try and increase the price of mutton and lamb to offset costs, driving them out of the market. ... I'm on a road trip through the West right now, and I can see historical evidence that sheep ranching used to be more prominent. It got me thinking.