What About Alpaca Meat?

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The majority of people eat meat, but only from a very limited number of animals. Alpacas, for many, fall into the category of, “Oh no, I couldn’t possibly eat their meat.”

Keeping a small herd of alpacas, especially when there are children around, can become quite emotionally intense. The animals are, most of the time, soft and gentle – although as a generality they don’t like too much handling. They look so cuddly. Both adults and youngsters become fond of them and to many the thought of eating one seems horrendous. The debate can become highly inflamed, especially when it draws in enthusiasts for a diet completely free of meat of any kind, let alone alpaca meat. In some countries, but by no means all, similar feelings are aroused about horse meat.

Around twenty-five years ago I recall visiting the home of one of my business colleagues in Scotland. The house, where he lived with his wife and three children, was reached by a drive up a long valley into the hills. On several acres of hillside behind it he kept a small flock of sheep. The children knew them all by individual names and were fond of them, especially those that they’d known from ‘lambhood’ . But they were going to be food. In an era when for most families meat comes in plastic prepacks from a supermarket this family was going to know where it really came from. One of the animals, I remember, was named Sunday Lunch; and later, after her demise, there was a Sunday Lunch 2.

And yet to others their alpacas, just like sheep and goats, are livestock who ultimately have to pay their way, and not only from their wool. Yes, they’re quite fond of their animals but they steer clear of sentimentality. Keeping alpacas is for them not only a hobby but is a means of earning a livelihood; a pleasant one certainly, but they never forget that each animal has to make an adequate contribution to the financial sustainability of the herd. This financial contribution may be from the fleece, by breeding, by work at stud or from its sale to another alpaca keeper. However there is also end-of-life value to be generated from skins and meat. These two can be important components in the economic mix.

In Peru, from where alpacas originally spring, alpaca meat used to be widely eaten and by many is considered a delicacy. In the mountains farmers still eat it but it is now illegal to operate a commercial alpaca meat business in Peru, this being part of the national programme to protect the species and rebuild the quality of their national herd.

I have read on some web sites that alpacas are an internationally protected species and that it is globally illegal to sell alpaca meat. This is not the case. Indeed the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE) as recently as 2008 put on its web site a downloadable standard entitled, “Llama/Alpaca Meat Carcasses and Cuts”. This deals with traceability of the meat, the production, feeding, slaughter and post-slaughter systems, and also includes colour photos of the various cuts of the meat.

In Australia alpaca meat is now branded with the (trademarked) name “LaViandé” and it is hoped that this will eventually become a sizeable specialist segment of the meat market. In that country alpaca research and development work has been carried out with a view to building sizeable alpaca herds to help the agricultural economy of its vast spaces. One component of this has been investigation of the potential for building both a domestic market and also an export trade requiring Australian government approval.

It is said that well-produced alpaca meat is like a “sweet lamb”. Others have described it as “like pork, only better”. Good quality meat production is, however, not simply a matter of slaughtering elderly animals to get an alpaca version of old mutton. Careful thought has to be given to the preparation of the animal before sending it to the butcher and, as with other aspects of animal condition, nutritional factors are critical. The pasture on which the alpaca has been grazing affects significantly the flavour of the meat. As with other meats there will continue for some time to be a need for research to identify optimum processes of pasturing, livestock management and meat production .

It seems probable that wool will continue to be the major alpaca product for some time to come, but it is not impossible that if consistent quality standards can be achieved and maintained, there could develop (at least in some countries) a market similar to that of venison.

Useful alpaca meat links and reports:

Australian alpaca meat site
The Peruvian Alpaca Meat and Hide Industries – report from the Rural Industries Research and Development Corporation (Australia) UNECE Standard for Llama and Alpaca Meat

Some accessible (i.e. easy to read) academic papers:

The production potential and importance of camels, camelids in the world – A short paper on camelids, including meat production
The Sustainable Development of the Camelid Sectors in the Peruvian Altiplano – (short thesis)
The value chain of alpaca fiber in Peru an economic analysis – (includes references to meat)

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