This may be US Veg Week, but if you’re going to eat meat today, you may want to reach for some lamb. For one, it’s probably healthier than other types of meat. Lamb is a staple in Mediterranean diets, believed to be the world’s healthiest diet because of its ability to lower the risk of cardiovascular disease. And although it can be slightly higher in calories than other meats, that can be offset when you remove some of the fat from a cut of lamb.
But lamb may also be preferable for consumers worried about the humaneness with which their meat is raised. Knowing your farmer is clearly optimal in determining that meat is raised safely, organically, and humanely. Knowing the animal spent its entire life on the farm? Even better. But let’s face it—sometimes there’s no other choice than meat purchased at the supermarket. And experts say that when you’re at the supermarket, lamb’s where it’s at.
“If you know nothing about what you’re buying and you go to the grocery store, your lamb meat is going to have a higher chance of being treated better than your pigs, chicken and cattle,” says Marianne McCarthy, co-owner of Signal Rock Farm, a sheep farm in Charlton, MA.
This is because sheep are less likely to experience the confined factory farm conditions other animals do, McCarthy says. Signal Rock just completed its lambing season, which lasts two or three weeks in March and April. Lambs live their whole lives on the farm, eating mostly hay and grass, using a sustainable grazing method that emulates their natural environment. When they are brought to the slaughterhouse at six or seven months old, McCarthy’s animals don’t wait around, so as not to stress them out.
“It’s quick, it’s humane,” she says. “I wouldn’t do this if it wasn’t humane.”
According to the American Sheep Industry, in 2010 the United States produced approximately 163 million pounds of lamb and mutton. Compare that to the 26.41 billion pounds of beef produced domestically in the same year, and it’s quickly apparent that the lamb business is far less industrialized. These animals experience less of the confined conditions other animals do because in order to produce a quality cut of meat, lambs need to graze over a large area of grassland.
However, while almost all lambs spend the majority of their lives grazing, conventional lambs are usually “finished” (grown to maturity) in feedlots where they are fed specially formulated feed, according to the USDA.
And that’s the primary downside to store-bought lamb—when the majority of the lamb’s diet is composed of grain, the animals’ health suffers. McCarthy says lambs “fatten really fast on grain,” which is why some farmers prefer grain to grass or hay. Lambs that are over-fattened with grain can experience liver failure, according to McCarthy, because as ruminants, the animals never fully digest the non-grass feed. As a result, humans have a difficult time digesting grain-fed lamb as well.
The moral of the story: Know your farmer. And if you can’t, reach for the lamb.
Do you eat lamb? Why or why not?