University of New England meat scientist Dr Peter McGilchrist welcomed long-awaited changes to the definition of "lamb", but said they still did not allow sheepmeat to be marketed on quality.
The definition of lamb was "a female, castrate or entire male with no permanent incisor teeth." A producer could be in the situation of lamb being sold as mutton (for less) due to a single milk tooth being lost over the weekend.
It now reads, "a young sheep under 12 months of age, or do not have any permanent incisor teeth in wear".
Dr Gilchrist said the beef industry gave up using those sorts of terms a long time ago.
"Beef is sold on how acceptable individual cuts are to the consumer," he said.
"That's where we need to take sheepmeat if we're really going to extract maximum value for the industry."
Dr Gilchrist thought the challenge was bringing in investment to drive technology development. He said compared to the global beef industry, the lamb industry was relatively niche, and only the Australian and New Zealand lamb industries were likely to provide a return to investors.
NSW Minister of Agriculture Adam Marshall said sheep industry leaders had campaigned for the definition changes for nearly 20 years and that the new definition would take a great deal of guesswork out of it.
"This will give producers a clearer timeframe about when they can market their ovine as lamb, ensuring they get the best return on their product," he said.
Dr McGilchrist said, objective measurement of sheepmeat was tantalisingly close as a Meat Standards Australia (MSA) model for cuts-based grading of lamb has been generated: it only needed to be switched on.
"All we need is some numbers for marbling and carcass yield to feed into the predictive model," he said.
Recent developments left Dr McGilchrist hopeful. A Japanese company, that devised near infra red technology for assessing intramuscular fat (IMF) in tuna, recently visited UNE to generate data to allow the units to be adapted for lamb.
"As soon as we can reliably measure IMF, we can start to use the lamb MSA model, and this outdated process of gauging meat quality through dentition should become history," Dr Gilchrist said.
"We're hoping we'll be capable of setting up a system for measuring IMF within 12 months.
"When we can start to rank lamb and sheep on these objective measurements, the industry will for the first time have a way of differentiating lamb in the marketplace, and that's going to open up a whole lot of opportunity."
Mr Marshall said the change would come into effect on July 1, and would put New South Wales' lamb industry on equal footing to other large international competitors such as New Zealand.
"Importantly the definition changes will have no bearing on the great quality and taste of Aussie lamb that consumers, both here and around the world, love and expect," he said.
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