Freeze branding divides wool industry

Peak industry bodies lock horns over NWD transparency debate

Wool
James and Jonathan Lillie of major Australian exporter, Fox and Lillie Rural.

James and Jonathan Lillie of major Australian exporter, Fox and Lillie Rural.

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Peak industry bodies lock horns over NWD transparency debate.

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Major wool industry bodies have locked horns over the Australian Wool Exchange's (AWEX) decision to allow the cryogenic freezing process to be reported on the National Wool Declaration (NWD) as non-mulesed wool.

In March this year, AWEX upheld its former position to classify the liquid nitrogen based freeze branding process as 'non-mulesed' on its NWD, but according to managing director of Fox and Lillie Rural, Jonathan Lillie, the decision has lost the opportunity to foster complete transparency in the Australian wool industry.

He said Fox and Lillie are not opposed to any progressive and economically viable process in sheep husbandry, but he believes any new intrusive process should include a clear definition and description.

"When it comes down to it, it's really about telling the truth on the NWD," Mr Lillie said.

"In this day and age, when you have a new process, especially an intrusive process, you need to declare it, the NWD is designed for that.

"Mulesing has a very clear definition, therefore another intrusive procedure should have a very clear definition.

"By telling the truth, the market can make up its own mind about whether any new procedure or process adheres to their company's policy direction."

Mr Lillie said some of the users of wool have made it clear that they wish to acquire wool from sheep which are not mulesed, and they have been paying a premium for this.

"These users have been relying on the premise that non-mulesed assumes no mulesing and or procedure to the breech," Mr Lillie said.

"With this increasing demand many wool growers have worked hard to establish their flocks as non-mulesed, which previously seemed a clear category on the NWD, but now one which AWEX has opened to scrutiny."

Dirk Stevens from Stevens Farming runs a 10,000 head self-replacing Merino flock across a number of properties in NSW and Victoria and has been non-mulesed since 2004.

He said AWEX's decision to allow other forms of breech modified wool to be reported as non-mulesed on the NWD meant decades of hard work down the drain.

"In some respect I feel cheated by the system," Mr Stevens said.

"For me and many others, it has meant years of going to the trouble of putting together a sheep that you don't have to mules.

"For about 10 of those years we were not receiving a premium and then the last four to five years we were finally receiving a good premium for our non-mulesed wool.

"But now this comes along and a cloud hangs over the industry.

"The simple fact is, it is not honest. It is a different process, so have a different box and let the market decide whether they like it or not."

In Mr Stevens opinion, it could be at the cost of the premium, in that the market will no longer believe the 'non-mulesed' status.

Australia's peak wool body WoolProducers Australia (WPA) CEO, Jo Hall, said she can understand why many people within the industry are concerned.

"I do acknowledge that every supply chain is moving towards more transparency and this appears to be a move away from a completely transparent NWD, however the NWD is about declaring mulesing status," Ms Hall said.

"Where we are coming from is that the definition of mulesing, which is, 'the removal of skin from the breech and or tail of a sheep using mulesing shears", has been in place for many years and is accepted by every single state jurisdiction.

"Freeze branding is not mulesing, so it fits into the non-mulesing category."

Ms Hall said WPA were against looking at a new category on the NWD because they saw it as a shifting of the goal posts.

"Industry, through AWI and taxpayers, have invested tens of millions of dollars looking for an alternative to mulesing since 2005," she said.

"And now all of that money will amount to nothing because all of a sudden breech modification is not acceptable?"

What level of pain is being caused by cryogenic breech freezing is not yet known with trials for the procedure currently being conducted at Melbourne University.

Ms Hall said regardless of when they are completed, AWEX has plans to review the document within 12 months.

"If Melbourne Uni comes back and says it is just as painful as mulesing, then it won't be an alternative," Ms Hall said.

"Why would we run and change the document when this procedure may not be acceptable on animal welfare grounds?"

But Mr Lillie argued even if AWEX is claiming to be awaiting the results of pain trials, how is the procedure already available in the industry for use?

"AWEX's position on this has been exposed by accreditation platforms which some buyers rely on to audit and authenticate the wool they purchase," Mr Lillie said.

Other industry platforms such as New Merino have also rejected the cryobreech freezing process being categorised as NM, as well as large, long-term customers of Australian wool, Vitale Barberis Canonico and Successori Reda.

Mr Lillie said he has no doubt there will be new ideas come along to do with sheep handling and husbandry, and expects some good ideas in the future.

"If they are not intrusive, I would imagine there is no issue," Mr Lillie said.

"But if there is anything controversial or potentially intrusive, we need to deal with them in the right way by telling the truth.

"The wool industry needs to advance 'in step' with its wool consumers and understand that truth in labelling is paramount to building trust in the wool we are selling."

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