Mary had a little lamb, little lamb, little lamb. Mary had a little lamb its [sic] fleece was white as snow….’
Lamb: a baby sheep. Adorable, gentle and vulnerable. The subject of a well-known children’s nursery rhyme, and frequent character in young children’s books.
Lamb: the main ‘ingredient’ of a popular Sunday night dinner – the ‘lamb roast’. Lamb as ‘tasty’ meal; a taste bud ‘pleaser’.
To market we go
Australia is the world’s second largest exporter of lamb.
In the 2012-2013 financial year, Australia produced 456 997 tonnes of lamb. 51% of this total was exported to overseas markets. The Middle East is the biggest export market for Australian lamb. Other major lamb export markets are China and the United States.
In Australia, lamb is marketed heavily as a national dish in the lead-up to Australia Day (26 January) each year. In fact, Australia is the largest single market for Australian lamb, with 9.7kg of lamb consumed per person in 2012-2013. This equates to an estimated annual expenditure of $2 billion.
The marketing of lamb
A popular television ad that screened in the late 1980’s features a young woman receiving a phone call at work with the thrilling news that she has won a ‘romantic dinner’ with Tom Cruise! This once-in-a-lifetime date – including dinner in a ‘top city restaurant’ and stretch limo transfers – is to take place that very night. The same night that her mum is cooking a lamb roast for dinner.
The young woman decisively declines the date with Tom in favour of an oven-baked, baby sheep’s leg. Her work colleagues are almost speechless. Her father, on the other hand, states: ‘Never mind love, you can go out with him any night’. The ad ends with the slogan: ‘Nothing comes before a roast lamb dinner’.
These days, lamb is flogged to Australians by Meat and Livestock Australia’s mouthpiece and ‘lambassador’, Sam Kekovich. This annual promotion takes the tack that lamb is Australia’s national dish. Those who do not partake are un-Australian. This year, vegans were a target of the lambassador’s ‘pro-BBQ lamb’ agenda.
In the article, ‘Carno-nationalism and cultural lambnesia’, Peter Chen argues that lamb is not actually a traditional Australian food. He asserts:
‘…the introduction of sheep in Australia was primarily for the purpose of wool production, and potentially productive sheep were too valuable to just eat as infants. Where sheep meat did become popular, this was more a response to the necessities of the wool glut in the 1980 and 90s than a reflection of a national characteristic.’
During Autumn 2013, to coincide with Mothers’ Day in Australia, a Meat and Livestock Australia promotion announced that mini-lamb roasts were so ‘easy to cook that literally anyone can do it’- even tattooed men, according to one of the promotional posters. The promotion attempts to link lamb roast preparation and motherhood:
‘The traditional Lamb roast is a family meal that is forever synonymous with the ‘nurture gene’ and being a mum. It’s the one meal we all return home for, because it’s just too hard or too time consuming for us to cook ourselves – and Mum makes it look so easy!’
This portrayal of motherhood is ludicrous and offensive: A nurturing mother slaving away in the kitchen, preparing a time consuming and complicated meal of baby sheep for her grown offspring, who are incapable of cooking it for themselves. The meal of lamb is a symbol of her love, and a demonstration of her ‘inherent’ female caring.
In another promotion, called ‘We Love our Lamb on Mother’s Day’, Kekovich portrays a school child who tells his classmates: ‘…if you really, truly want to show mum she’s special, cook her a lamb roast. She’ll love you for it’.
Lambs to the slaughter
Current projections indicate that 20.95 million lambs will be slaughtered in Australia in 2014. That is equivalent to more than 55 000 lambs killed per day, every day, for 12 months.
That figure represents an enormous amount of pain, terror, suffering and grief – for the lambs and their mothers, from whom they are forcibly weaned at approximately 14 weeks of age. Life on the farm is not idyllic for lambs. They are subjected to tail docking without anaesthesia, and young males may endure castration without pain relief.
The Model Code of Practice for the Welfare of Animals: The Sheep is a set of guidelines that provides detailed minimum standards to assist ‘sheep producers’ to understand the standard of care required to meet their obligations under Australian legislation.
Clause 10.3 permits the use of clubbing to kill lambs that are deemed to require euthanasia:
‘Lambs (but not adults) may be stunned by a heavy blow to the back of the neck to render them unconscious. This should be followed immediately by bleeding out.’
Clause 9.3 of the Model Code discusses tail docking, a practice that is ‘recommended’ for blowfly control and involves the removal of a section of tail. Apparently, it is preferable for the procedure to be performed on lambs aged between 2 and 12 weeks of age. Disturbingly, the Model Code states that only lambs over 6 months of age require an anaesthetic.
So, what are the acceptable methods of tail docking without anaesthesia?
They are listed as: ‘cutting with a sharp knife’ or ‘rubber rings applied according to the manufacturer’s recommendations’, or ‘a gas flame heated searing iron used according to the manufacturer’s recommendations’.
Castration of male lambs is also permitted without anaesthetic if performed before 6 months of age. However, if lambs are to be slaughtered before puberty, that is, prior to 3 – 6 months of age, ‘castration may be unnecessary’. Acceptable methods include cutting with a clean, sharp knife (to remove the testes) or the application of a rubber ring to disrupt blood flow to the testes, destroying their function.
Meat and Livestock Australia (MLA) discusses early weaning of lambs. It is referred to as a ‘management practice’ that is ‘useful’ during drought periods, and one that enables ewes to ‘gain their condition faster, resulting in higher conception rates at the next joining’. Weaning is acknowledged as a ‘stressful time’ for lambs and, in order to ‘help reduce the stress’, ‘sheep producers’ are encouraged to keep lambs ‘out of sight and hearing range of their [mothers] immediately after weaning’.
Also, ‘sheep producers’ are referred to a web site called ‘Making More From Sheep’, a joint project of Australian Wool Innovation and MLA. The site includes 11 modules, including one called: Wean More Lambs.
Ewe are not special
As Mother’s Day approaches in Australia, perhaps we’ll see another MLA promotion encouraging people to celebrate their mothers by serving a lamb roast.
The industry does not have any regard for the bond of motherhood between a ewe and her baby. Mother sheep are not ‘special’. The focus of the industry is to maximise profits by weaning lambs early in order to impregnate ewes as frequently as possible. The mother, the ewe, only has value as a producer of lambs.
On Mother’s Day, I will not be celebrating my mum, or my role as mother, by consuming the offspring of another mother.
In My A-Z of Veganism series, I discuss and explore a topic or issue related to veganism, and my experiences as a vegan – as I work my way through the alphabet!