When it comes to serving up the perfect lamb chop, forget celebrity chefs and special sauces; science is raising the "baa."
With the help of medical technology, researchers from the Sheep Cooperative Research Centre in Western Australia have worked out which rams and ewes will breed the highest-yielding lambs.
One avenue being pursued is using a CAT scanner to analyze the carcasses of more than 2,000 lambs from eight different sites across Australia. The goal is to deliver a leaner, juicier cut of lamb.
The CAT scans, presented this week at a scientific conference in Australia, make it possible to determine the composition of each carcass in terms of muscle and fat content.
These results are then compared back to genetic and breeding criteria information about the parents of the lamb.
Eye muscle is the key
Doctoral student Fiona Anderson said it appears sheep with a high "post-weaning eye muscle depth" are likely to breed lambs with a greater yield of lean meat.
She said the eye muscle in sheep runs along the back of the eyeball and its depth is measured using ultrasound.
The bigger this figure, the more muscle on the whole sheep and particularly in the "very tasty and very expensive loin region," Anderson said. "It's really putting science behind the selections of these animals."
Anderson said, however, that there is a fine balance between increasing the amount of muscle to ensure lean meat and the amount of intramuscular fat.
"Below a certain level of intramuscular fat, the consumer will say [the lamb] doesn't taste good," she said.
"We want to make sure we don't decrease our fat levels too much. It won't be an immediate impact, but in the long term it could affect taste."
The Sheep Cooperative Research Centre says the average amount of lean meat per lamb has been raised by 230 grams over the years, mostly through breeding.
Sheep CRC meat program leader Professor Dave Pethick, of Murdoch University, says the industry has increased the average percentage of lean meat per lamb by 230 grams, largely though genetic gain.
"This increase has been the major reason for the turnaround from lamb's lack of appeal and regarded as a fatty meat to being considered the premium lean meat."