MIA Focus: Chicory – rocket fuel for healthier lamb

Omega Lamb from Alliance Group.

Chicory, a forage herb crop, is healthy rocket-fuel for lamb it has been found. The herb is one of the secret ingredients behind good results from the Omega Lamb Project, a Primary Growth Partnership (PGP) project to place healthier lamb on the world’s dinner plates.

The results are coming out of the $25 million Omega Lamb Project (OMLP) PGP programme, a seven-year collaboration between Alliance Group, Headwaters Group and the Ministry for Primary Industries. Now in its second year, the PGP is based on around 10 years of scientific work by Alliance, Headwaters and Beef + Lamb NZ Genetics.

According to OMLP manager Mike Tate, the programme is taking a fresh approach to breeding, raising, processing and marketing premium New Zealand lamb by repositioning it as a healthier red meat with lower saturated fat levels and higher omega-3 fatty acids.

Tate explains over the last 20 years the sheep industry has focused on selecting animals for lower fat levels.

“However, a level of fat is needed by ewes to survive the winter and raise lambs. Fat is also needed for red meat to process well, cook well and be tender and succulent – much of the flavour is contained within the meat.”

Last season, the first for the project, 15,000 lambs met the set criteria for omega-3, intramuscular and polyunsaturated fats. These promising results are a combination of the lambs’ genetics, feeding and management, he says.

Gemma Milne, Alliance Group nutritionist.

Alliance Group nutritionist Gemma Milne has been working with OMLP since it started in 2015 (see FoodNZ, April/May 2015).

“The lambs are brought down from the hill country and grazed naturally on chicory, and chicory/red clover pasture, which is like rocket fuel for them,” she explains.

The team has found it also increases intramuscular fat in the animals. Animals produced in the system are healthier – both in themselves and for the consumer – and contain higher levels of the ‘good’ polyunsaturated and omega-3 fats, and lower levels of the saturated fats, she says.

“Grass-fed lamb is already a good source of iron, protein and omega-3, amongst other nutrients. What we’ve found is the OMLP system significantly and consistently improves the amount of omega-3 fatty acids, polyunsaturated fats and lowers saturated fat levels.”

The results were gauged from the annual genetics test of the lambs from the Headwaters flock – known as the progeny test. Samples are also taken from each commercial kill, to help understand whether there is a pattern with seasonality and/or mobs of sheep.

The lambs achieve an average of three percent intramuscular fat (in loin) against a one to two percent average for New Zealand lamb at the same age.

The team’s biggest hurdle, says Milne, will be achieving the baseline of less than five grams of saturated fat per 100g which is required to make an omega health claim.

“However, preliminary fatty acid tests from the progeny samples show the fat levels are consistent and it’s looking very promising.”

The OMLP team is working in strong partnership with AgResearch on the development of appropriate measurement techniques for fatty acids and is now on to the next step to confirm results with an International Accreditation NZ (IANZ) accredited lab.

Chefs, who will be the first targets when the product is launched later this year, have been bowled over by Omega Lamb’s taste and consistency, reports Milne.

The lamb was centre-plate recently in the New Zealand team’s entry at last year’s International Culinary Olympics in Germany, coming away with a silver medal in the live hot kitchen competition.

Taste panellists at the cooperative’s Innovation Centre at the Lorneville processing plant, plus others in independent taste panels in New Zealand and overseas, are reporting its succulence, tenderness and mild lamb flavour.

“They also say it has a different mouth-feel. We’re interested in finding out how fatty acid affects that,” says Milne.

Ahead of the launch, market research is currently underway in Hong Kong, the UK and in New Zealand and the lamb is also undergoing a trial in premium restaurants in New Zealand and Hong Kong.

“This really has been an amazing project to be involved in. It’s the most exciting thing to come out of the red meat industry in a long time,” she says.

This article appeared in Food NZ magazine (February/March 2017) and is reproduced here with permission.

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