"To create a new class of lamb we needed to think outside the square.”
And that’s what the Omega Lamb Project did, with a decade’s worth of research into sheep genetics, lamb nutrition and farm management creating a new premium breed known as the Te Mana Lamb.
For more than 140 years, New Zealand has struggled to escape the commodity trap. The country has dispatched undifferentiated commodities like lamb and mutton to customers in the four corners of the world. It’s been a race to the bottom with a single-minded focus on price and volumes. But the Omega Lamb Project, a Primary Growth Partnership (PGP) programme between the Ministry for Primary Industries and the private companies Alliance Group and Headwaters, has changed all that through a combination of natural breeding, outdoor pasture-based farming and modern individual animal recording and product analysis.
It was while breeding sheep to be healthier and better adapted to the harsher high-country environment that the ‘eureka’ moment came: it was the fats in lamb, not lean muscle that was the key, both for the animal and the consumer. They are bred for high levels of polyunsaturated intramuscular fats and Omega-3, and these characteristics are enhanced post-weaning when the lambs move to lowland farms to specially-developed chicory herb-based pastures. For farmers breeding the lambs, there are also strict rules as to what pesticides they can and can’t use on the crops used to feed them.
The response from top chefs to the market entry has been absolutely overwhelming, driven purely by the product quality – delicate flavour, succulence, tenderness, low odour and a clean mouth feel. It's a hero product that's reinvigorating the use of lamb on the menus of top restaurants.
As My Food Bag co-founder Nadia Lim says: “The more common source for Omega-3 fatty acids is seafood, particularly oily fish. The fact that this lamb contains notable levels of Omega-3 fatty acids, as a result of their diets, is a bonus to its fantastic flavour ... The lamb can be cooked longer, allowing the intramuscular fat to melt, creating delicious and delicate flavours and an underlying richness.”
As chef Ben Bayly describes it: “It’s a fabulous product and I put it up there with Wagyu beef, truffles and caviar – products which are suited to fine dining restaurants and you can justify paying a premium for,” he says. “I’ve worked with Te Mana Lamb sales manager Lyndon Cleveland for some time and he told me about this new lamb. I tried it and loved it.”
Dale Bowie, chef and co-owner of the Wanaka Gourmet Kitchen, is also a big fan and says it's converted some diners. "We’ve had customers say they don’t like lamb but when others on their table start saying how good the lamb is, they try some and think it’s phenomenal. The meat is so moist and succulent you just can’t go wrong. In terms of new recipes and innovation, the sky’s the limit.”
So what comes next? As Omega Lamb Project farm manager Aimee Charteris says: “We have begun visiting our existing base of farmers and to date they are all staying on, which is fantastic. We are now working through with them what lamb numbers they can commit to for the coming season.
“Our existing group really are rock star farmers. They are passionate about what they are doing and they fundamentally believe that this type of system is the way forward to both satisfy consumers requirements and to add value for farmers.”
Put simply, the Omega Lamb Project is a rare example of the transformation from commodity goods to premium products that all our primary industries are seeking.
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