Sheep outnumber people in New Zealand. Outranked only by China and Australia, the country is one of the biggest sheep producers in the world and is well-known for its high-quality lamb. While lamb is among the top meat choices in New Zealand, parts of the Middle East, and the Mediterranean, people in the United States often prefer beef, chicken, and pork, eating just one pound of lamb each year.
Any cut of lamb is a flavorful, tender, and versatile type of red meat. Sheep are hearty creatures who fare well in a wide range of climates and topographies, so they're raised throughout the world for both meat and wool. It's a good choice for consumers who are conscious of where their food comes from and how it is raised. While many believe it should be locally sourced, a few differences between American and New Zealand lamb may influence your buying decision.
The highest quality American lamb is raised in the Rocky Mountains, southern plains, and along the Pacific coast. It tends to come from the largest sheep in the flock, though they must be under 14 months old to qualify as a lamb. Older sheep produce tougher meat called mutton.
Lambs are 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 dark red and quite tender because of the marbling. The lamb marked "grass-fed" or "grass-finished" will likely be leaner and have a more robust lamb flavor.
New Zealand Lamb
Lamb from New Zealand is smaller than American lamb. In New Zealand, as in Australia and many other countries, only animals under 12 months old and without incisors can be labeled lamb.
New Zealand sheep are grass-fed throughout their lives, producing a more pronounced flavor. Typically humanely-raised and free-range sheep, they also tend to be leaner. Since it is slaughtered at a younger age and lacks grain feeding, it may have less marbling, but it is still very tender. Traditionally, lamb from New Zealand is also cheaper—even after shipping—than American lamb, though this may fluctuate with the market.
Other International Lamb Options
While shopping for lamb, you may come across other types (although more uncommonly), such as Australian, Icelandic, and French.
- Like New Zealand lamb, Australian lamb tends to come from smaller animals that have been entirely grass-fed on open pasture. 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 frequently used in the United Kingdom as well). Like the U.S., however, France saw a reduction in lamb production over recent decades, and only true specialty markets carry it. Even much of the lamb for sale in France comes from Ireland.
How to Choose the Best Lamb
While it may be sourced from anywhere in the world, it's always important to treat lamb like any other meat. Whether packed fresh or frozen, look for the freshest-looking lamb and check the packaging date. The meat should be red but no darker than a rosy red, as that indicates older meat. It should also have a fine grain with firm, white fat. If possible, purchase lamb from a local producer of grass-fed, humanely-raised lambs.