A strategic mulesing and animal welfare plan for the sheepmeat industry would help Free Trade Agreement negotiations with the European Union after Brexit is completed.
This is according to Meat and Livestock Australia (MLA) managing director Richard Norton who said a policy was “key in every market” negotiation.
“In particular Europe has a single-minded approach to animal welfare,” Mr Norton said.
“As an industry, we don’t have a policy position when it comes to the (surgical) mulesing practice.
“Having no policy, no strategy and no plan leaves you vulnerable to social media and attacks on your industry – once that perception is built, it is very hard to change.”
This is causing headwind for the whole of the Australian sheep industry
MLA are delivering a report to the Sheepmeat Council of Australia (SCA) board next week, detailing an estimated flock breakdown with the status of non-mulesed, ceased mulesing or mulesed sheep.
The information has been derived from AuctionsPlus sale assessments, according to Mr Norton, representing about 10 per cent of sheep transactions last year.
The report will also detail examples of government intervention of agricultural practices as a result of consumer pressure.
This information will form the basis of an industry strategic plan which will formalise Australia’s position regarding the use of pain relief during surgical procedures, Mr Norton said.
He said sheep welfare concerns could cause “headwind” for Australian trade negotiations.
“Consumers can change a market overnight – we saw what happen in 2010 with live exports,” Mr Norton said.
“This is causing headwind for the whole of the Australian sheep industry.”
He said the plan would be discussed at MLA’s September board meeting, following a six week consultation process with SCA and wool industry representatives. Ultimately the industry would seek to develop a sheepmeat sustainability model, he said.
“I can’t stand in front of my board, or the livestock industry, and say I didn’t see the (mulesing) risk coming to the sheep industry because the next thing I wouldn’t see coming is my redundancy,” Mr Norton said.
“MLA, together with SCA, has identified risks to the industry – this is a high risk...
“This will put a strategy in place so when the risk eventuates, we are not scrambling, we go straight to our strategy, straight to our talking points.”
He said MLA would be “negligent” if it did not pursue a strategic direction for the sheep industry.
“Whether we have done it well in the past doesn’t matter, we are doing it now, as we understand the benefits of good risk management,” Mr Norton said.
“Hindsight is a wonderful thing but maybe if we had foresight we would have proven Hormone Growth Promotants (HGP) in cattle had no negative human health outcome – but consumers have now walked away from HGP.
“These are examples of where we can’t repeat the mistakes of the past. “From the environment, animal welfare to the health and nutrition of livestock, we need to work with the industry to have strategies for how to manage all those things.
“We need to manage this as an industry before someone imposes a strategy on us.”
“We are anticipating what a future value chain looks like, and as a sheep industry, appreciating the role of animal welfare in the future value obtained for sheepmeat – to not do so would be ignoring global macro trends,” he said.
“Consumers make their opinion known on food safety, animal welfare and the environment, through social media or the cash register.”
He said there were global macro trends with consumers wanting to understand where their food comes from, how it was produced and whether it was produced ethically.
“We do consumer surveys all over the world to ensure we create markets and breakdown trade barriers for Australian producers, to do that we need to understand what the consumer insights are,” he said.
“If the surgical mulesing (practice) gives lifetime animal welfare outcomes, we should explain this to consumers using research.”