It seems the US is preparing to lift the ban on imports of British lamb that was imposed in 1989 in response to the outbreak of BSE here.
This is encouraging – though I’m not sure how much it will transform the prospects of the humble British sheep farmer.
In my admittedly limited experience of US food, I observed no great appetite for lamb – beef steaks bigger than the plate – yes, chicken – yes, even seafood – yes.
Curiously I was once told “the seafood is great because we are so close to the ocean” in a town 200 miles from the coast. However, lamb did not feature on the menus at all.
The decline in US lamb consumption since the Second World War has been partly attributed to soldiers returning home after years of being fed on rations of canned mutton and resolving never to touch it or lamb ever again.
Whatever the reason, lamb is not wildly popular there and has been becoming less so.
Famously, the current US ambassador to the UK, Matthew Barzun, risked a diplomatic incident when complaining of the amount of lamb he had been served since his appointment.
He said “I must have had lamb and potatoes 180 times since I have been here. There are limits and I have reached them.”
A British chef opined at the time: “Americans don’t really get lamb. They’d rather have beef, or beef or, possibly, beef.”
However, there may be an angle we can use on this. A couple of years ago a friend of ours started selling his Northumbrian lamb over the internet.
He was amazed by the huge proportion of hits to his website coming from North America, given that he couldn’t actually sell them any meat. He finally concluded that the traffic was coming from Americans trying to connect with their Northumbrian roots.
We experienced this first-hand when, one day, a couple of Americans turned up at our farm with an old painting of the house, passed down through their family as a memento of the old country.
We weren’t able to tell them anything they didn’t already know about their family, but they seemed rather moved to see the ancestral homestead for themselves.
Historically, the main export to North America from around here has been people, particularly in the 19th century, when it would appear that anyone from these hill farms with any get-up-and-go got up and went. Our visitors’ antecedents had been part of those waves of emigration.
A number of my own distant relatives also emigrated at that time.
I have traced the story of one of them who owned a distillery on the dockside in Brooklyn in the 1850s, with a sideline in fattening 50 head of cattle and up to 700 pigs on the premises using some of the grains and slop by-products.
Such a practice in such a location would be unimaginable today.
Having enjoyed researching the life of my distant relation, I would be only too willing to sample Brooklyn distillery products in his honour. People like to connect with their roots.
So, why not market lamb into the US as a heritage product to people with British connections? Sell it as raised on the land of their ancestors, fed on the grass and heather that their ancestors left behind.
This should be a twin track to marketing into the US ethnic immigrant communities, which actually like lamb and are the main growth sector for it.
Defra has suggested this market could be worth £35m to the UK – good news.