In New Zealand (where there are more sheep than people), as well as certain parts of the Middle East and the Mediterranean, lamb is the top choice when it comes to meat. In steak-loving America, however, that is not the case. Which is too bad, considering lamb is flavorful, versatile, and good for you. New Zealand is the main producer of lamb in the world while Americans eat only about 1 pound per year.
When it comes to lamb, many believe that it should be considered a local meat—sheep are hearty creatures who fair well in a wide range of climates and topographies, so there’s no reason to buy lamb that has come from a distance. (And for those who are conscious of where their food comes from and how it is raised, lamb is often a safe choice.) So, if you live in America, why would you choose to purchase New Zealand lamb? There are a few differences between American and New Zealand lamb that may influence your decision.
American lamb tends to come from the largest sheep in the flock. The best lamb is raised in the Midwest as well as Colorado and is almost always grass-fed, but some American lamb is grain finished, meaning that it's fed grain at the end of its life to fatten it up before slaughter. This practice leads to a mellow flavor and lots of marbling (a characteristic that Americans prize in their beef as well). American lamb tends to be quite dark red and, because of the marbling, quite tender. The lamb specifically marked "grass-fed" or "grass finished" will likely be leaner and have a stronger lamb flavor.
New Zealand Lamb
Lamb from New Zealand is smaller than American lamb. It is grass-fed throughout its life and tends to have a more pronounced, lamb-like flavor. It is slaughtered at a younger age, so despite the lack of grain feeding and lesser marbling, it is still very tender. It is important to note that in New Zealand, as in Australia and many other countries, only animals under 12 months old and without incisors can be labeled "lamb," whereas in the U.S. there is no such age restriction in labeling.
Lamb from New Zealand is also cheaper—even after shipping—than American lamb.
Other Types of Lamb
While shopping for lamb, you may come across other types, although more uncommon, such as Australian, Icelandic, and French. Australian, like New Zealand lamb, tends to come from smaller animals that have been entirely grass-fed on open pasture so it is leaner and has a deeper flavor than American lamb.
Icelandic lamb is rarely found in U.S. markets, but if you are lucky you may spot some. It tends to be the smallest in the lot, with a remarkably delicate flavor and a very tender texture.
French lamb is famous, particularly the tender young lamb that feeds on salt marshes (a practice growing in frequency in the U.K. as well). Like the U.S., however, France has seen a reduction in lamb production, and only true specialty markets carry it on this side of the Atlantic. Even much of the lamb for sale in France comes from Ireland!