Deadline approaches without fanfare

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Bob GarnantCountryman
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As the original mulesing deadline of December 31, 2010, approaches, it offers a stark reminder of how Australian wool is perceived around the world.

It may be a case of any news is good news, but when global retailers stated their intentions to ban Australian wool goods, even some of the world’s best animal welfare practices immediately became risky business.

And one of the first to make headlines was US clothing giant Abercrombie and Finch which, in October 2004, said it would boycott the use of Australian Merino wool in its products because the fibre was sourced from mulesed sheep.

Mulesing is the controversial practice of surgically removing strips of skin on the lamb’s backside to prevent fly strike.

Many other retailers followed, persuaded by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) which threatened to put the blood back on the hands of those seemingly responsible.

The Australian wool industry acted decisively and in November 2004, the Wool and Sheep Industry Taskforce agreed to phase out the practice of mulesing by December 31, 2010.

The controversial deadline created many divisions in the industry and it was put upon Australian Wool Innovation (AWI) to find a quick solution.

In a June 2007 AWI versus PETA court case, an out of court decision put a stop to the animal rights group threatening global retailers over the practice of mulesing until December 31, 2010.

After pro-mulesing directors took control of the AWI board in November 2008, led by chairman Wal Merriman, it was only a matter of time before the deadline was under critical review.

Mr Merriman, in announcing the scrapping of the deadline on June 2009, said growers should be free to choose whether it was in their best interest to stop mulesing.

Now only a few days away, the deadline is neither here nor there.

Many producers have voluntarily ceased mulesing, but many are waiting until a viable alternative is available.

The CSIRO, after years of research, said that genetic approaches were likely to provide the best long-term solution to breech strike.

In the meantime, producers can now fill in a National Wool Declaration (NWD) form to declare their mulesing status, which includes reporting the use of a pain relief treatment.

Australian Wool Producers president Don Hamblin said the NWD was possibly the most important tool to emerge in the challenge of meeting customers’ buying preferences.

“The value of the NWD and providing reliable information to our end users cannot be overstated, ” Mr Hamblin said.

While non-mulesed wool may increasingly be forced on the minds of retailers, there are still no prospects of premium prices being paid to encourage producers to have greater proactive ambitions.

It could be that future mulesing news will aid market forces, but most Australian producers are adamant that animal welfare standards will always come first, no matter what the headlines are saying.

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