The initiative is being shepherded by the New Zealand Merino Co. and processor co-operative Silver Fern Farms, who have a formed a joint venture to create a luxury meat brand, Silere Alpine Origin Merino.
According to the companies, Silere will offer meat from the merino sheep, which is bred predominantly for its wool, and is generally smaller than that of sheep bred for meat.
New Zealand Merino Company CEO John Brakenridge told FoodNavigator-Asia that the merino sheep are bred in the variable terrain and diet of New Zealand’s high country.
“This gives their meat a distinct flavor and a silky texture that is both lean and healthy,” he said.
Rugby world cup serves as trial phase
Brakernridge said that as a pilot before the meat is marketed worldwide, Alpine Origin Merino is partnering with some of New Zealand’s top restaurants to trial Silere on tourists in New Zealand for the Rugby World Cup.
As the second phase of development, after first entering the premium restaurants segment across the world, merino meat could potentially be offered directly to the consumer as a processed food product, he said.
“Merino has the potential to be a culinary sensation in select global markets, just as we have seen with the rising popularity of Wagyu beef in recent years. Until now merino has not been differentiated in the way,” he said.
Karin Stahel, communications manager for New Zealand Merino, told FoodNavigator-Asia that the initiative is part of New Zealand Merino’s wider New Zealand Sheep Industry Transformation project, implemented in partnership with the Government's Primary Growth Partnership fund.
“The partnership is an important component in the aspiration to double the value of the Merino industry over the next five years by unlocking the value of merino meat and co-products such as leather and lanolin,” she said.
Lamb industry changing tracks
Silver Fern Farms CEO Keith Cooper told FoodNavigator-Asia that the merino meat project is part of a wider programme to maximise the value of New Zealand sheep, including the meat gained from it.
“Our goal is to turn the traditionally volume-based sales approach characteristic of the New Zealand lamb industry on its head by pursuing premium opportunities in higher-value micro-markets,” said Cooper.
“Part of this shift in thinking involves adding value to cuts traditionally perceived as lesser value. We need to challenge the thinking that we can only ever achieve top dollar for racks and loins,” he said.
On the retail level, given that Merino meat would be priced 10 to 15% higher than regular meat, New Zealand Merino’s Stahel said that the company is confident that there is a market of luxury food lovers who will be prepared to pay the higher price for a superior product experience.