Sheep Ranchers Count On American Muslims To Keep Lamb On Menu : The Salt Today, the average American eats about a half pound of lamb per year. Now lamb producers are setting their sights on Muslim consumers. But first they'll have to learn how to market to them.
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Sheep Ranchers Count On American Muslims To Keep Lamb On Menu

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Sheep Ranchers Count On American Muslims To Keep Lamb On Menu

Sheep Ranchers Count On American Muslims To Keep Lamb On Menu

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Lamb is the kind of food a lot of Americans treat as special, something to order at a restaurant - lamb chops. A mix of cultural and economic factors pushed that meat off the dinner table long ago. Now, to get lamb back on the table, rural sheep ranchers are reaching out to Muslim customers. From member station KUNC in Colorado, Luke Runyon reports.

(SOUNDBITE OF AUCTION)

UNIDENTIFIED AUCTIONEER: (Inaudible).

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Yes.

UNIDENTIFIED AUCTIONEER: (Inaudible).

LUKE RUNYON, BYLINE: Every Wednesday, Abdel Himat is here at the Centennial Livestock Auction in Fort Collins, Colo, and that's because Wednesday is lamb day.

ABDEL HIMAT: Sometimes I buy like 300, 400 and sometimes I just go, walk away with 80, 90.

RUNYON: A sliding door opens on one side of the dirt pen. A handful of lambs darts inside. Himat flicks his wrist at the auctioneer.

What just happened?

HIMAT: These ones are too big for the ethnic markets.

RUNYON: Himat essentially acts as a lamb broker. He buys the young sheep from ranchers here at the auction, arranges for them to be slaughtered and processed to Islamic standards, known as halal, and then distributes the meat to about a dozen ethnic and international grocery stores.

HIMAT: The younger they get and the smaller they get, the higher they get. The older they get and the bigger they are, the cheaper they are.

RUNYON: Himat started coming to the auction 16 years ago after leaving his home country of Sudan. Back then, he was the only Muslim buyer here taking home about 20 lambs a week. Now, he has competitors, and he buys hundreds of lambs at auction.

MEGAN WORTMAN: It's a universal meat. I mean, every religion, you know, everybody eats lamb but Americans.

RUNYON: Megan Wortman is executive director for the American Lamb Board, the promotional arm for the industry. The average American eats a half pound of lamb per year but eats 55 pounds of beef. That's led to hard times for sheep ranchers, and to keep the industry afloat, Wortman says her goal is to convince growing American Muslim communities to eat more lamb.

WORTMAN: We sort of had this assumption that we didn't really need to market to these communities, that they were the ones that already knew about lamb, loved lamb, are eating tons of lamb.

MEHRAN DIBA: (Foreign language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Foreign language spoken).

DIBA: (Foreign language spoken).

RUNYON: The demand for Halal lamb is already booming at Arash International Market in Aurora, Colo. Mehran Diba is the owner.

DIBA: This is the meat department. We have this section from there. It's going to start out part of lamb - lamb ribs, lamb shoulders, lamb neck, lamb legs.

RUNYON: But the lamb case is almost empty. Diba says sometimes the demand outstrips the supply. A couple weeks ago, he had to send his lamb buyer 500 miles to a Montana auction house to keep his store stocked.

DIBA: It's not that easy, you know? Wyoming, Montana - wherever we can find, he goes, you know.

RUNYON: For decades, America's sheep ranchers have produced fattier lamb for fancy restaurants, but Diba's customers prefer leaner, smaller animals. If the future of the U.S. sheep industry hinges on America becoming a more diverse place, ranchers will need to change how they raise the animals.

(SOUNDBITE OF AUCTION)

UNIDENTIFIED AUCTIONEER: (Inaudible).

RUNYON: Back at the auction in Fort Collins, rancher A.J. Nelson takes a seat to watch the sale.

A.J. NELSON: My family's been in the sheep industry since 1918 or '19, and my friends and a lot of, you know, extended family, they don't eat lamb.

RUNYON: Almost every sheep raised in the U.S. ends up in a processing plant that's halal certified. The meat is then shipped to ethnic grocery stores in the Northeast and on the West Coast. The demand is there, but Nelson says growing those markets is what's going to keep the American sheep industry up and running. For NPR News, I'm Luke Runyon in Fort Collins, Colo.

MONTAGNE: And that story came to us from Harvest Public Media, a reporting collaboration that focuses on agriculture and food.

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