Wool Trade

Anger and relief as AWEX keeps non-mulesed definition on NWD

Terry Sim, March 30, 2020

The sheep freeze branding process developed by Dr John Steinfort’s has maintained its NWD ‘non-mulesed’ status.

A DECISION to maintain the current interpretation of non-mulesed wool on Australia’s National Wool Declaration has been welcomed by the nation’s peak grower body, but condemned by some breeders and animal welfare interests.

After three rounds of consultation over recent months, the Australian Wool Exchange on Friday said its board has unanimously agreed to maintain the NWD’s current definitions for non-mulesed and mulesed wool.

The decision means that wool from sheep which have had their breeches modified with the freeze branding process will now be defined as ‘non-mulesed’ despite the opposition of non-mulesed wool growers, animal welfare bodies and some brands and processors.

However, the AWEX board has committed to conduct a further review of the NWD with respect to mulesing status, with particular focus on the identification of wool from sheep processed with freeze branding.

“This review will take place within 12 months or when the results of the scheduled trials, providing clear animal welfare outcomes, are available, whichever comes first,” last week’s media release from AWEX chief executive officer Mark Graves said.

WoolProducers CEO Jo Hall said WPA welcomed the decision of AWEX to seek further information from sheep freeze branding developer AusVet Innovation on its animal welfare trials before making an informed decision.

“We welcome this common-sense approach by AWEX.

“The reality is, there was not the relevant information to make such a decision,” she said.

“For any organisation to make a decision at this point in time to change the non-mulesing definition, would not only have been premature, but also reckless as there simply was not enough information available to make an informed decision.

“The current usage rates for SFB are very low and therefore the volume of SFB wool that may be declared through the NWD would be immaterial,” she said.

WoolProducers said if the SFB pain assessment trials demonstrate an unreasonable level of pain is caused from this procedure, it is very unlikely that there would uptake of SFB and therefore the confusion within the trade from an amended NWD will be for no reason.

“There is a long standing and accepted definition of mulesing in Australia, and we had always maintained that if another procedure does not meet this definition then it should simply be defined as non-mulesed,” Ms Hall said.

Non-mulesed wool growers slam AWEX decision

However, non-mulesed wool grower and stud breeder Mark Murphy said the AWE decision was “absolute BS.”

“Someone there wants to muddy the waters, which is what we said in the first place and none of this (AWEX) crew have got the balls to stand up and be counted.

Mr Murphy noted AWEX’s comment that a highlight of the review of the NWD was the significant number of submissions from overseas and downstream stakeholders.

“That means customers, yet they (AWEX) are not getting the message.”

Mr Murphy said it appears that AWEX was ignoring the market feedback from customers on this issue.

“Reading between the lines, these blokes lack the intestinal fortitude to make a commonsense decision – that is not the answer to anything.”

Non-mulesed wool grower and stud breeder Martin Oppenheimer said it was understandable that AWEX had gone with the ISAC recommendation, “but unfortunately it is not going to make the NWD any better.”

“It’s not going to necessarily help wool buyers and brands have any better understanding of what has happened to that (SFB) wool.

“So it can’t be seen as an improvement,” he said.

“It is pretty much kicking the can down the road.”

Mr Oppenheimer said the decision would not improve the transparency of non-mulesed wool under the current NWD.

“It seems that the industry is not wanting to encourage transparency from the market – there is a lack of transparency from buyers.

“And that links to our marketing body Australian Wool Innovation, which is not encouraging transparency; they are also muddying the waters,” he said.

“The NWD is not making it clear as to what has happened to these (freeze branded) sheep, it is actually making it harder for buyers and brands to find out what the status is.

“What it will do is continue the trend for third party accredited quality assurance programs … meaning as time goes on the NWD becomes a less important and less relevant document.”

Animal welfare bodies slam NWD status quo decision

Humane Society International Australia program manager for animal welfare Georgie Dolphin said lumping ‘freeze mulesing’ into the non-mulesed NM category muddies things for ethical consumers looking to avoid painful breach mutilations.

“It is very disappointing that AWEX have rejected strong calls for more transparency during the NWD review process.

“They have blown an opportunity to provide much needed clarity to buyers and retailers,” she said.

“NM wool should strictly come from sheep that have not been subjected to any form of breech modification, and the proposed AM category would have offered a good solution.”

FOUR PAWS Australia head of programs Jessica Medcalf said the NWD continues to enable wool producers using ‘freeze mulesed” sheep, to receive the same premiums afforded to producers who’ve actually gone to the extra effort of transitioning away from any form of breech modification.

“The lack of clarity provided by the NWD, namely with regards to transparency around wool from freeze mulesed sheep, will continue to bring doubt from both brands and consumers as to whether the NWD is a reliable marker of higher welfare wool.

“Brands and suppliers looking to reliably source mulesed-free wool are now more likely to shift to other assurance schemes which clearly ban freeze mulesing, and other forms of breech modifications,” she said.

“FOUR PAWS continues to call upon the industry to support each other as a whole, and to move towards flystrike resistant sheep types which don’t require any form of breech modification.”

AWEX NWD decision welcomed by freeze branding promoters

AgVet Innovations general manager Stuart Blair said the AWEX NWD announcement is a landmark decision for the Australian wool industry in terms of encouraging innovation in novel processes and technologies that provide wool growers tools to cease mulesing.

“We see sheep freeze branding as a transitional stepping-stone for growers wishing to cease mulesing whilst improvements in genetics continue to be made, or for those who wish to minimise chemical applications to reduce resistance build-up.

“We are looking forward to the results of the independent sheep freeze branding trials being conducted by the University of Melbourne and further validation of this process as an ethical and effective tool to maintain breech health.

AgVet Innovations joint venture partner is Australian Wool Network and AWN chief operating officer Rick Maybury said the recognition of wool from sheep who have not been mulesed as non-mulesed on the NWD ensured simplicity of the declaration process, which was one of the key requirements of the review, according to ISAC.

“There is no doubt that there is an increasing demand from consumers and therefore the supply chain for non-mulesed wool.

“Today’s (Friday’s) decision supports the development of new and existing novel technologies which provide growers with other options to manage their animals, such as sheep freeze branding, whilst improvements in genetics continue to be made,” he said.

“The detailed declaration of on-farm practices can and will continue to be available through audited programs such as Responsible Wool Standards (RWS) and ZQ, which have been designed to provide greater transparency to the supply chain.”


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  1. Glenn Simcock, March 31, 2020

    Vested interest is an amazing phenomenon. As quoted to me once by a wool buyer — “A wool buyer’s vested interest is to purchase wool as cheaply as possible regardless of how it is produced.”
    No wonder the wool producing flock is decreasing, partly due to all the unnecessary self-interest and negativity surrounding this magnificent industry.

    • Donald Cameron, April 1, 2020

      Don’t ever get between a vested interest and a dollar…

  2. Andrew Farran, March 31, 2020

    A wee bit over the top some of these comments. They beg the wrong question.

  3. Chick Olsson, March 31, 2020

    This stupid decision by AWEX to include other breech surgeries in the non-mulesed (NM) wool category means the effective end of the National Wool Declaration’s validity. An appalling decision that has not listened to our customers and will only add fuel and grist to the animal rights groups bent on the destruction of wool and sheep farming. Another Australian ‘inspired nail in the coffin’ of the world-wide wool industry.

  4. Peter Small, March 30, 2020

    Congratulations to AWEX for coming up with a sound decision that has the well-being of the total industry, centre and foremost.
    Congratulations also to WoolProducers, under the careful leadership of president Ed Storey. And it was Jo Hall the CEO of WoolProducers, who right at the start of this debate, warned the industry of the dangers of departing from the Australian governments’ – state and federal — interpretation of mulesing; ie. the removal of skin from the breech of a sheep using mulesing (surgical) shears.
    I am appalled by growers with vested interests campaigning against such a sensible decision, even to the extent of enlisting Northern Hemisphere brand and processors to support their cause, ie choking off the supply of non-mulesed wool so they can maintain their cherished premiums.
    It is essential for the future of our total industry that the supply of non-mulesed wool is dramatically increased, whether by genetics or technology, whilst abiding of course, by the accepted interpretation of mulesing. If our industry is to rebuild from its feeble position, it needs to be gutted from politics and petty self-interest.

    • Martin Oppenheimer, March 31, 2020

      Well done Peter, you have nailed it once again.
      How can the AWEX board decide such an important decision for the Australian wool industry when they are so conflicted?
      Now that AWEX is a commercial supplier of accreditation ie SustainaWool, it’s not surprising they are happy to dumb down the NWD so that many buyers require additional accreditation.

      What does NM mean?

      What does AA mean?

      How many ‘independent’ accreditation programs are growers encouraged to join to market their wool so that buyers can discover what the NWD was meant to tell them?

      • Peter Small, April 1, 2020

        Martin, There would not be an early stage processor in the world that did not know what NM stood for; as long as the wool they buy has that acknowledgement they have what they need. Others of course will be more pedantic; that’s their and their principals commercial decision, in which case they will need to go to a more comprehensive assurance program.

        • Martin Oppenheimer, April 2, 2020

          What does AA mean?

          Nice, more third party accreditation…

  5. Andrew Farran, March 30, 2020

    The decision is evasive and puts off the inevitable. Breech modification which does not involve cutting is not mulesing.
    Price premiums are not the issue. The issue is sheep welfare and well-being. If freeze branding eliminates the chances of sheep being fly blown, it achieves two positive objectives and avoids what is really objectionable – mulesing (blood and pain) as conventionally defined.

  6. Andrew Farran, March 30, 2020

    The decision is evasive and puts off the inevitable. Breech modification which does not involve cutting is not mulesing.
    Price premiums are not the issue. The issue is sheep welfare and well-being. If freeze branding eliminates the chances of sheep being fly blown, it achieves two positive objectives and avoids what is really objectionable — mulesing (blood and pain) as conventionally defined.

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