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When I go to the supermarket I do not see much, if any, mutton, just a lot of lamb.

So, I have postulated some possible explanations:

  1. mutton (the meat of a sheep) is being sold as "lamb",
  2. mutton tastes weird to Americans so all of it is exported,
  3. mutton tastes weird to Americans so it is turned into dog food,
  4. all adult sheep are only used for wool and are then retired and put out to pasture where they live out their retirement years playing pinochle and shuffleboard.

What's the explanation, why is there is so little mutton and so much lamb meat?

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7  
Most lamb in the US is imported from New Zealand... we don't produce a ton of it locally... And, no, we generally don't like eating mutton. You're more likely to find it in a specialty market. – Catija Mar 7 at 15:41
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So, in New Zealand do they have mutton for breakfast, lunch and dinner? – Drisheen Colcannon Mar 7 at 15:44
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As a side note: all sheep are not equal. Like in other domestic animals you typically have different breeds for different purposes. Some breeds are "better" for wool, others that grow quicker and are larger are breed for meat etc. (Though there are quite a few "multi-purpose breeds".) – Stephie Mar 7 at 16:58
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have you been to supermarkets all across the us? if not, you might want to specify your region. there is a LOT of variance across the states. it's a big country. walking into one supermarket and looking around doesn't tell you much at all about what "american supermarkets" are like. – sgroves Mar 7 at 17:24
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In response to item 1: Mutton dressed as lamb? Are you implying they're pulling the wool over your eyes? – Pharap Mar 8 at 0:14
up vote 36 down vote accepted

It's not just American supermarkets that rarely carry mutton, this situation is similar across the Anglosphere, and I suspect most Western countries too (or at least those without a strong mutton culture). The reason is largely economic. Mutton is expensive and not as tasty as lamb.

  • First, the immediate reason is that nobody really eats mutton anymore. Yes, there are certain locales, cultures and movements still eating mutton or are trying to bring it back, but today, on aggregate, the demand for mutton is near zero. According to the USDA:

    The U.S. market for lamb and mutton has weakened throughout the decades. Since the 1960s, per capita consumption has dropped from nearly 5 pounds to just about 1 pound. This drop is due in part to declining acceptance of lamb from a growing segment of the population, as well as competition from other meats, such as poultry, pork, and beef. Most meat is sold as lamb and comes from animals under 14 months old.

    Here's a per-capita consumption graph:

    per capita consumption

    If nobody buys mutton, supermarkets don't sell them. The supply chain for meats is pretty complex; it's not something that a store manager can just decide one day to order a batch and shelve to see if it sells. Meat needs to be slaughtered and deboned in an abattoir, butchered either in store butcheries or at centres (unless you fancy buying an entire, 50kg cut), and displayed in refrigerated sections. If there's enough local demand for mutton then maybe individual supermarkets can carry them, just as meats like rabbit, duck or kangaroo is sometimes sold at a few supermarkets.

  • But why don't people eat mutton? People just don't like it. It is an inferior good.

    Mutton comes from older animals and is often less expensive but less desirable to consumers. (USDA)

    .

    As can be seen, the average income elasticities across the studies are 0.77 for beef, 0.24 for lamb, -0.65 for mutton, 0.47 for chicken and 0.48 for pork.

    (Negative income inelasticity = inferior good) That is, as incomes grow, as they have over this timeframe, people want to buy less of it.

  • Lamb is a superior substitute for mutton. Anecdotally, compared to lamb, mutton is gamier, tougher, and harder to cook. Economically, lamb and mutton have high cross-price elasticity - if one's price grows, demand shifts to the other, indicating that they are substitutes. And the real killer is...

  • Mutton prices have grown faster than lamb.

    meat prices

    Mutton is still cheaper than lamb, but in relative terms it has become more economic to raise and sell lamb. There are multiple market forces at play: the cost of raising the sheep past lamb age, the efficiency of raising lambs (i.e. increased lamb weight), the growth of dairy leading to higher beef supply, the relative decline in wool reducing mutton supply and so on. You'll have to ask a farmer.

Source: Changing Pattern of Meat Consumption in Australia by Lucille Wong, E A Selvanathan and Saroja Selvanathan

Update: didn't notice that the graph was price indices and not actual prices

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5  
What's the mid-1970s Beef Boom about?? – AakashM Mar 8 at 10:35
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@AakashM what does that have to do with the question? Anyway it's all in the paper. tl;dr trade restrictions. – congusbongus Mar 8 at 10:42
    
nothing; thanks! – AakashM Mar 8 at 11:02
    
@AakashM It was more of an unsustainable growth thing - postwar boom and improving agriculture efficiency lowered the cost and increased availability. Oil shocks, economic turmoil, and the dawn of healthier eating consciousness (ie: bad press) turned the tide. The 70s were one big bubble in a lot of ways - socially, economically... the west, and the US especially, had its first postmodern existential crisis, the fallout of which we're still pretty much dealing with today. – J... Mar 8 at 12:13
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Not sure id agree with lamb is tastier than mutton, mutton will have a stronger flavour, although lamb should be more tender – jk. Mar 8 at 15:56

As has been mentioned, most of the lamb in the US is imported -- and mutton is imported, too

There's a giant consumer of mutton in western Kentucky around Owensboro. (it's the local standard for barbecue, and past reports put Owensboro near the top of the list for both for per capita number of and spending at restaurants)

As we now have a lot of smaller sheep farms making cheese and wool, especially in mountainous regions, I would suspect that there are people eating mutton, but it may be that they're keeping it for themselves. There's also a possibility of selling it to ethnic butchers, as sheep and goat are popular in some european, asian and middle eastern cuisines. (I know I can get rabbit at one of the local Italian markets, and goat at a local asian market)

Although I suspect that there may be some labeling issues in selling mutton as 'lamb' (much like people would be upset if you sold beef as veal), I've heard that some butchers who make Merguez sausage will use a blend of mutton and lamb -- the spices mask the possible gaminess of the mutton, but there's still lamb in it so they can label it as such.

I'd suggest looking in your area to see if there are large farmer's markets -- there are often farmers selling meat, cheese, and yarn there. If you find someone selling sheep products, you can ask them about obtaining mutton or hogget (1 to 2 year old sheep).

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6  
+1, I had no idea there was a mutton-based regional barbecue style. – Dan C Mar 7 at 17:35
    
@DanC : it helps that I lived in KY, and did some contract work which required visiting a lot of out-of-the-way places (where the large jails were). The others who were on that trip insisted that we had to go to Moonlite. That was 15+ years ago, so I don't think I could accurately describe it from memory, but I remember enjoying it. – Joe Mar 7 at 21:56
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If you go to a grocery store, you see a lot of beef and very little veal. The terms 'mutton' and 'lamb' map to the terms 'beef' and 'veal' for sheep and cows, respectively. This question is asking why, when you go to a grocery store at see a lot of adult cow meat and very little child cow meat, yet for sheep the situation is reversed, you see a lot of child sheep meat and very little adult sheep meat. The fact that mutton is imported, that it is used a lot in kentucky, and that you might be able to get mutton from a local farm don't even attempt to answer the question. 1/2 – Shane Mar 7 at 22:44
    
2/2 The idea that the vast majority of adult sheep meat gets sold only in ethnic shops is very hard to believe without any sort of data. I think you are on track with the labeling issue. But that only makes up a tiny part of your answer. – Shane Mar 7 at 22:47
    
I think summarizing that link as "mutton is imported" is doing it and your answer a disservice: it does also talk about Americans not liking the taste as much, and mentions that a lot of mutton is used as dog/cat food, sometimes even baby food, and sausage, which is a pretty direct answer to the OP's question. – Jefromi Mar 7 at 23:05

Here in New Mexico, the Navajo raise sheep, and eat a lot of mutton. It is definitely an acquired taste; pretty "gamey" to me. Nearly all the lamb sold in stores here is from New Zealand or Australia. It is not possible to find mutton in regular stores here. I have never seen mutton sold as lamb; I don't think it would sell, except near a reservation, and there would be issues about false labelling. You can definitely tell the difference - even by sight - between mutton and lamb. I have also lived on the East Coast and the West Coast (but over a decade ago) and I have never seen mutton for sale in stores.

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The answer is #1.

There is no term for Hogget or Mutton in North America. All meat from a sheep is called 'lamb' regardless of its age. So likely, all lamb sold in the US would be called mutton elsewhere. (It is possible that it is all actually young sheep, or some is young some is old -- but I doubt it.)

Relevant regulation:

Under current federal regulations (2014 CFR §65.190), only the term 'lamb' is used:

Lamb — ovine animals of any age, including ewes and rams

The terms 'mutton' and 'hogget' are rare in the United States. Nevertheless, the exclusive use of 'lamb' in the United States may be confusing, particularly if it is assumed that only actual lambs are butchered for their meat. Under the previous definition (2010 CFR §65.190), 'lamb' meant 'meat, other than mutton (or yearling mutton), produced from sheep'.

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Shane, after a discussion in Seasoned Advice Chat I removed my basically identical answer because the Wikipedia article (links please next time!) is a bit questionable - the CFR is far more vague than Wikipedia states. – Stephie Mar 7 at 19:49
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Yeah, I'm pretty certain that this isn't a good interpretation of this regulation. The text of it is, literally, and in its entirety "Lamb means meat produced from sheep." It doesn't ever say "all sheep". Similar definitions include "Beef means meat produced from cattle, including Veal." It's literally just a glossary in the text. Additionally, there certainly are stores in the US that sell "mutton"... It's just not sold in the average grocery. – Catija Mar 7 at 19:59
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Wikipedia is unfortunately wrong here. The referenced 7 CFR §65.190 is being used out of context. It's part of a list of definitions that only apply to 7 CFR Part 65 - COUNTRY OF ORIGIN LABELING OF BEEF, PORK, LAMB, CHICKEN, GOAT MEAT, PERISHABLE AGRICULTURAL COMMODITIES, MACADAMIA NUTS, PECANS, PEANUTS, AND GINSENG. This definition of "lamb" is only used in the definition of "ground lamb" which in turn is only used in 7 CFR 65.300 (h) which sets rules for determining the countries of origin of ground meat. It doesn't place any requirements how lamb and mutton is identified on labels. – Ross Ridge Mar 7 at 21:25
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You can't take Wikipedia articles as gold. They aren't always correct. See Ross's comment for verification. Your answer is simply wrong. You can definitely buy mutton at specialty stores that cater to people who regularly eat mutton... for example, Middle Eastern and Indian groceries... Lamb is almost always exactly that... "baby sheep". The two taste very different. – Catija Mar 7 at 22:30
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@Shane I think y'all are talking past each other a bit here. First off, "mutton" is a term in North America. The fact that most people don't eat it doesn't mean that there is no term. And second, mutton tastes quite different from lamb. Given that people who specifically want mutton end up going to specialty stores, I think we can infer that the lamb sold in most stores is not mutton, so your claim that "all lamb sold in the US would be called mutton elsewhere" is likely also not correct. It probably is all young sheep. (If it weren't, people would notice very inconsistent taste.) – Jefromi Mar 7 at 22:47

Mutton is the meat from GOAT and lamb is the meat from sheep. Lamb or sheep meat tends to be softer and easier to cook than mutton, which usually requires a pressure cooker to cook properly. Mutton is chewy meat and not so soft as lamb. Mutton is popular in India and the UK ( adopted from India) and usually served as curries. New zealand and Australia produce most of the lamb in the world but mutton is available almost everywhere. Just need to look for Goat meat!

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This may be the case where you live, but in the US, this is not true. "Goat" is the meat from goats or "kid" (for young goats) or "chevon" (for adult goats). "Mutton" is meat from adult sheep. – Catija Mar 7 at 22:20
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Not the case in Australia, UK, or New Zealand either. – EJP Mar 8 at 0:51
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Or South Africa – Neil Meyer Mar 8 at 10:12
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Is there any English-speaking case where this is at all true? I know that there are places where mutton covers both sheep and goat, but is there anywhere where it is generally understood as only goat? – Jon Hanna Mar 8 at 12:19
    
Anecdotally, in the American rural South I've bought goat meat that was labeled "Mutton" in the official packaging. Pretty sure it was actually goat as thats what I asked for, and it tasted like other goat dishes I'd made. – Graham Mar 8 at 15:32

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