SHEEPMEAT industry heavyweight Roger Fletcher has warned against following calls by Victorian farmers that could destabilise an upcoming move to change the national lamb definition policy.
“How can one state backflip on bloody five or on the whole industry?” the Managing Director of Fletcher International Exports said.
Mr Fletcher and other leading sheep industry figures felt compelled to speak out in response to recent media reports suggesting the Victorian Farmers Federation was unhappy with the move to align Australia’s lamb definition with New Zealand’s standard.
“What, is Victoria running the show?” Mr Fletcher said.
“They have a right to have their say but unfortunately the majority of industry is backing it - full stop.
“This will benefit the industry and the sheep farmer and we will have a better quality lamb because people can keep them on feed to finish them that little bit better.
“And it’s that critical period of the last six weeks, on the best feed, before processing.”
WAFarmers Livestock Council member and former Sheepmeat Council of Australia (SCA) President Jeff Murray backed Mr Fletcher’s stance, saying there had been a long-lead in time to the national policy change, underpinned by scientific research and industry consultation.
SPA recently released survey results which showed 83 per cent industry support for the change, after a nine-week public consultation phase conducted across the sheep supply chain.
Once the new definition is adopted, a lamb will be classified as ‘young sheep under 12 months of age or which do not have any permanent incisor teeth in wear’.
But Mr Murray said he was concerned the Victorians were threatening industry progress, against the majority view.
He said the scientific trial-work that underpinned the lamb definition policy-change started 20-years ago with Merino first and second cross lambs tested in on-farm studies which showed there was no difference to eating quality.
“It’s not as if it’s just come over the hill in the last five minutes – it has been around for 20-years and the processers have been keen all the way along,” he said.
“But now we’ve got the VFF coming out worried about what the definition is, but it’s only going to put us on the same footing as the NZ model.”
The policy change is expected to be introduced by Spring 2019 but Mr Fletcher said it could be implemented now.
“I don’t know what we’re waiting for – this should be ready to go in the Spring this year and there’s no reason why it can’t start on July 1,” he said.
“They’re talking another 12 months off, but why?
“We’ve all come together as an industry.
“The processing industry as a whole is for it, Sheep Producers have come together on it but then you’ve got one splinter group that drops out.
“So is everyone else wrong and Victoria is right?”
Mr Fletcher said he didn’t understand Victoria’s motives and didn’t accept an excuse related to the upcoming implementation of Dual Energy X-ray Absorptiometry (DEXA) technology in meat processing plants, nationwide.
“I don’t like saying it but we’re in the best position of anyone due to owning farms, fattening lambs, breeding sheep and processing them and then exporting the product to world markets,” he said.
“Making this change to the lamb definition is the right thing to do and the big winners will be farmers that don’t get penalised.
“DEXA measures meat, fat and bone content but it doesn’t do quality at all.
“The biggest outcome of this is, with that bit of added time, is people won’t put lambs on feed, if they think they might cut their teeth.
“They’re probably not going to cut their teeth for three months but they’re too scared to buy them or put them away because the minute they start dropping a lamb’s tooth out, it’s finished.
“This way is best, to get tenderness of meat, and one of the most important things is nutrition in the last six weeks
“We’ve proved this.
“Without the quality of the feed in the last six weeks the product’s no good so those lambs that don’t go onto good feed, because they think they’re going to cut their teeth, they’re still lambs going to an inferior product.”
Livestock SA president Joe Keynes said the sheep industry in SA was “firmly in favour” of the lamb definition change and believed it would have much impact on the marketing of Australian lamb.
"I think Sheep Producers Australia consulted pretty widely and the feedback they've had hasn't suggested this is likely," he said.
Instead he believes marketing would become easier while also not disadvantaging producers.
“There is no change in eating quality between an animal with lambs teeth or a rising two-tooth but there is obviously a big price differential for those animals that have just cracked teeth,” he said.
He said the large number of Merino breeders could also benefit from these changes.
“A lot of Merino lambs are being finished, with breeders getting a fleece of them, which is very valuable, and selling lambs at the yearling stage,” he said.
“It can open up a bit better market for those.”
Mr Fletcher said he agreed with changing the definition because it gave farmers “more of a chance to finish-off lambs and end up with a better product”.
“The lamb industry will lend up with a better product with that extra two to three week window and that’s all it is, but people will put lambs on feed or on grain or on oat paddocks, if they’ve got the certainty that they’re not going to cut their teeth,” he said.
“They can mouth them every 10 days and check where they’re at, and the ones with teeth that look like they’re breaking they can send them in and that’s the great advantage.
“The industry as a whole will be a lot better and it brings us into line with the rest of the world but I think it’s more than that, we’re going to have a better product.”
WAFarmers Livestock Section President David Slade said the decision would benefit lamb producers by allowing a longer period in which to sell lambs that would previously have been discounted once the permanent teeth had erupted.
“The new definition will level the international market playing field for Australia, which will have the same competitive advantage as New Zealand once the definition is implemented,” he said.
“The previous definition was too restrictive, with a percentage of lambs discounted by approximately $50 to $60 per head on arrival at the abattoir due to falling outside the lamb category, resulting in significant losses to farmers and the industry supply chain.
“We commend the science behind this to ensure there will be no impacts on meat quality, and that this change will be of immense benefit to WA lamb producers.”
Mr Murray said the Victorians had said the lamb definition change may hold up progress on implementing the DEXA model but that technology was only an objective measurement on the carcass and “it’s on the horizon”.
“Changing the lamb definition isn’t going to hold up DEXA; it’s just part of the ongoing improvements,” he said.
“DEXA may take five years or 10 years to happen in some processing plants.
“But I’ve had calls from some producers over here in WA saying we want to get onto this now and we don’t want to wait forever, for this new lamb definition to come in.
“The change may take up to 18-months but I’d be hopeful we can get on with it and things can happen a lot quicker than that.”
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