IN the huge US meat marketplace where beef burgers, steaks and fried chicken rule the menu, Australia has notched up a notable victory as it slowly cultivates America's taste for lamb.
For the first time in about half a century lamb consumption in the US has started rising.
Although more than a third of Americans have never tasted lamb - and those who have are generally unsure how to cook it - sheepmeat products are increasingly on the menu outside the traditional fine dining market.
Australian lamb sales have grown gradually in the US for two decades, but have jumped about 20 per cent in the past five years, and 8pc last year.
Americans ate almost 63,000 tonnes of Australian sheepmeat exports, worth $685 million, in 2015 - about the same volume as their own sheep producers supplied from states such as Texas and Idaho.
Compared to our $3.2 billion a year US beef export market, Australian sheepmeat sales are still modest, but the US is our biggest and most valuable overseas buyer of lamb cuts such as racks, legs, shortloin chops and shanks, taking two thirds of last year's lamb exports.
About 57pc of all sheepmeat sold in the US now originates from Australia (42pc) or our trans-Tasman rivals in New Zealand (15pc), who have also been working hard to convince US consumers there is much more to red meat than just beef.
Meat and Livestock Australia's (MLA) North American international business manager, David Pietsch, said while our exports were traditionally sustained by demand from the "white tablecloth" restaurant sector, lamb was now increasingly served in the "fast-casual" food service sector, and appealed to younger more adventurous, new generation consumers.
More Americans also appreciated lamb as having a more pronounced flavour than poultry and pork.
Lamb burgers, lamb pizzas and a growth in the popularity of ethnic cuisine from the Middle East, India and Hispanic communities, have proven to be good markets for sheepmeat lines outside the traditional leg and loin chop trade.
US imports of Australian mutton - mostly as whole carcases - grew 16pc in 2015, making it the only one of our top five buyers to expand.
MLA research has found 27pc of US consumers now buy imported lamb monthly, while use of lamb in main meals has risen significantly since 2012, including in burgers (up 111pc), pasta dishes (56pc) and Asian meals (40pc).
"For the first time in more than 40 years lamb consumption in the US has lifted slightly, and this basically is a result of imports from Australia and NZ driving the market in the past 20 years," Mr Pietsch said.
"Australian product sales have had steady volume and value growth, particularly since we've recovered from the price spike of 2010-11 when supply shortages had a big impact on availability for the US, and affordability."
However, he said the market still had a long way to grow to before lamb was accepted as a mainstream meat in the US.
Americans eat just half a kilogram of lamb per capita a year - about one twentieth of the amount consumed by Australians.
"There are certainly a lot of Americans still to be introduced to lamb and it's a big population of 320m people representing a fantastic growth market opportunity for us, but we shouldn't get too carried away by the possibilities just yet," he said.
The US sheepmeat industry, now running almost its smallest flock in decades, was also looking to take advantage of the growth possibilities, making a concerted effort to lift the lamb producer productivity.
Despite the challenges of educating consumers about lamb, Australian marketers and MLA were achieving pleasing traction with programs targeting chefs and shoppers, particularly during holiday season periods such as Easter, Christmas and Thanksgiving.
Targeted television advertising last year in key markets in California, south eastern USA and the north eastern states triggered retail sales rises of up to 140pc above areas not exposed to the promotion.