An Alberta processor is putting a face to the farmers behind a new line of lamb products.
SunGold Specialty Meats’ Lamb Tonight line of meats began selling at Sobeys, Safeway, and Thrifty Foods stores across Canada earlier this summer. It features 10 ready-to-cook lamb products, including lamb burgers, sausages, meatballs, kabobs, and seasoned ground lamb.
But along with making the lamb easy to use and attractive for consumers, it also wanted to share the story of its producers, so the labels contain pictures and background on some of their lamb-producing families.
Polson’s Farm is one of the featured operations, and Nathanael Polson has already lots of feedback.
“I have an aunt in Toronto, and she goes to Sobeys and sees the lamb with our picture on it,” said Polson, who’s breeding 1,600 ewes at his family operation near Tees. “So she tells her friends. It’s a connection, and it can snowball. We’ve had extended family even in Red Deer see it, and all of a sudden, it gives more ownership to what we do.
“People today seem to need a story to buy.”
SunGold sees Lamb Tonight as a good news story all around.
“We’re taking underutilized cuts and creating more value out of the carcass, which is good, not just for SunGold, but also for producers,” said general manager Miles Kliner. “The reality is we need lambs to be successful, and producers need to make a living to make more lambs.”
The Lamb Tonight line also features innovative packaging, made possible by a $1.7-million investment in both mixing and packaging equipment for the Innisfail processing plant. Those improvements were completed in May, adding 30 new jobs over the last few months.
“This project represents another significant investment by the shareholders into the lamb industry,” said Dwayne Beaton, SunGold CEO. “It also provides new retail packing options for our current fresh lamb meat and offal business.”
“The equipment allows us several new options for pre-cut, ready-to-sell product for the retail environment that we believe will help grow the lamb category, to better satisfy growing demand,” said Kliner, adding work is underway to find new ways to utilize culls.
Because of the lingering wartime stigma attached to the term mutton, processing older sheep has often been an expense item for producers rather than a return. So with a marketing plan and a more palatable term, the introduction of some innovative sheep meat products could be down the road as well.
Interacting with consumers is a priority for Kliner, and not a week has gone by since Lamb Tonight launched in June that he hasn’t personally dealt with at least one call or inquiry.
“A lot of them are technical in nature. The No. 1 question is whether the product is pork free, since it seems many people have severe pork allergies, and a lot of products use hog casings. But we use all collagen-derived bovine casings, so we can maintain our halal certification.”
There are also no fillers or preservatives in the Lamb Tonight products.
Sales have increased since the product launch, but has been modest so far. However, Kliner said he’s confident the product quality and marketing effort, including producer stories, will drive demand higher.
“I’m excited. We see Lamb Tonight products as a gateway for people who haven’t tried lamb before,” he said. “We wanted to provide consumers with a more convenient lamb product. These value-added items offer a lower price point compared to lamb cuts.
“They’re simple to cook. We’ve had tremendous feedback. People are looking for different choices.”
On the farm front, Nathanael Polson doesn’t mind the trappings of his retail ‘fame.’
“Value added is a good thing. It helps the bottom line,” he said. “Margins are so small for both producing and packing lamb. We trust if they’re making money, we make more money.”
Stories about 12 Alberta lamb producers can be found at lambtonight.com.
Lamb consumption: small but growing
Canadians only eat, on average, about a kilogram of lamb per year — a small fraction compared to their consumption of pork, beef, or chicken.
But despite that, the country’s sheep producers can’t supply the market, with 50 to 60 per cent of lamb being imported every year, mostly from New Zealand, Australia and the U.S.
But SunGold says lamb is the only red meat protein category growing in per capita consumption in Canada over the past decade. Also, Canadians eat more lamb per capita than Americans.