Wool Trade

Australian wool’s ‘lost transparency opportunity’

Sheep Central, April 21, 2020

AUSTRALIA’S wool industry has lost an opportunity to promote unequivocal transparency by allowing wool from freeze-branded sheep to be described as ‘non-mulesed’, according to Italian processors Reda and Vitale Barberis Canonico.

After three rounds of consultation over recent months, the Australian Wool Exchange board last month unanimously agreed to maintain the National Wool Declaration’s current definitions for non-mulesed and mulesed wool.

The decision meant that wool from sheep which have had their breeches modified with the freeze branding or liquid nitrogen process will continue to be defined as ‘non-mulesed’ on the NWD — until a further review — despite the opposition of non-mulesed wool growers, animal welfare bodies and some brands and processors.

It should be about transparency, integrity and traceability – Reda

Reda chief of operations Francesco Botto Poala.

However, exporter New England Wool and its Italian shareholders, Reda and Vitale Barberis Canonico (VBC), today said they are dismayed by the outcomes from the long and extensive NWD review.

They are also concerned for the ramifications of these decisions on the Australian wool industry.

“It should all be about transparency, integrity and traceability,” Reda chief of operations Francesco Botto Poala said.

“These three pillars, if strong and constantly maintained, will allow brands and consumers to make informed decisions, and give them complete faith in the supply chain from which they purchase their goods.

“Australia cannot afford to jeopardise these credentials,” Mr Botto Poala said.

“There seems to be an element of inaction in these outcomes on what could have been a wonderful opportunity for the Australian wool industry to show leadership and forward thinking.”

He noted that a members’ update issued by AWEX at the completion of the NWD review stressed that “a highlight of the review of the NWD was the significant number of submissions from overseas and downstream stakeholders.”

“The decision should be taken looking to the final consumer.

“The outcomes, or may I suggest, lack of outcomes make me feel that the views of the customers of Australian wool were largely overlooked,” Mr Botto Poala said.

In announcing the NWD’s finalisation, AWEX also said it is seeking further information on liquid nitrogen or freeze branding process from AgVet Innovations on the animal welfare trials being undertaken, before an informed decision can be made.

Call to place freeze branding “in a holding pattern”

Reda and VBC felt the lack of information on the process should have been a strong argument to “place liquid nitrogen in a separate holding pattern”.

New England Wool managing director Andrew Blanch.

On behalf of NEW’s Italian shareholders, NEW managing director Andrew Blanch said AWEX should be the gatekeeper of the NWD scheme.

“The onus should be on the applying entity to provide AWEX with all the independent science and trial work results before being assigned an appropriate classification and code.

“Due diligence involving the customers of Australian wool should also be a major part of any application and assessment.”

“This is not about making a judgement of one practice over another,” Mr Botto Poala said.

“The most important outcome should have always been to be totally transparent….we believe the attitude is completely wrong.”

VBC CEO Alessandro Barberis Canonico.

VBC chief executive officer Alessandro Barberis Canonico highlighted the issue he now faced when selling a non-mulesed wool fabric to his customers.

“There is a very real global perception by customers, brands and consumers that non-mulesing (NM) means that the animal is not touched at all and there is no manipulation of the breech,” he said.

“Allowing all alternative methods to mulesing into the NM/CM bracket causes us the most concern.

“In some way we, VBC, become co-guilty if we cannot clearly understand what we are purchasing and including in our fabrics,” he said.

“You could say that AWEX have moved the issue into our hands.”

“It is a huge shame that this perfect opportunity for the Australian wool industry to seriously promote unequivocal transparency has been lost,” Mr Barberis Canonico said.

Mr Blanch said it is now imperative that NEW safeguard the integrity of its shareholders, first and foremost.

“We will be seeking the complete truth behind the wool we compete upon and purchase – a task that should never have been necessary if the truth had been made freely available.

“The Australian wool industry will be judged ultimately on transparency and integrity,” he said.

“These decisions from the NWD review I fear will negatively affect how all customers view the Australian market and will no doubt influence their future buying considerations.”


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  1. Deane Goode, April 24, 2020

    Absolutely correct Norm. Many end-users have decided that they don’t want wool from sheep that have been adulterated in any way.
    That is their prerogative, and whether it is classified as non-mulesed (NM) or whatever, they can select the wool they like.
    Once again, it is unfortunate the hierarchy of the wool industry has failed to offer clear and sensible leadership on the mulesing debate.
    It is not difficult to genetically breed for plain bodies. It is the only way. We have wasted way too much money looking for alternatives when the solution was always just under our noses — genetics.

    • Jim Gordon, April 24, 2020

      Deane Goode, no wonder you are running a successful business with comments like you have made. Why is our peak body fighting the sensible option? It is beyond belief.

  2. Phill Ivins, April 24, 2020

    A disappointing outcome. So where to for a truly unmulesed wool product?
    Have we all wasted our time and extra costs involved in producing wool with true accountability on it status if substitute tick in the box fits?
    Will the premiums experienced now end for our wool? Will SustainaWOOL have a product equal to Europe’s Ecowool, to present to its markets?
    I feel it is compromised by this decision.
    And do SustainaWOOL growers have to select another box to tick and identify the non-mulesed status of our wool?

  3. Doug Wright, April 22, 2020

    If we were to breed sheep that were wrinkle-free, plain-bodied and with bare breeches, the debate about mulesing would be finished. In addition, these sheep would be fly-resistant and as such, do not need to be jetted.
    This can be done by way of the genetic solution and is being done across the world. In doing so, this would be passing the first test of Marketing 101: give the market the product they want and give it better than your opposition.

    • peter small, April 23, 2020

      Yes Doug, you are completely correct. But the fact is that genetic progress is not fast enough to supply the demand for non-mulesed wool and so we are losing market share to other fibres.
      I understand the sheep breeding issue. In the early 1990s as chair of the Wool Industry Training Centre, (WRIST) at Hamilton, I was responsible for the Jim Watts sheep breeding workshops across Australia. That was nearly 30 years ago, and yes, while the quality of the Australian wool clip in the view of many has improved immeasurably, and comes from plainer-bodied sheep with longer crimpier softer fibres, many sheep are still not free of wrinkle around the breech and present a blow fly problem, especially in some regions. So whilst the often slow genetics process progresses we must use technology in the interim. Our wool clip is shrinking at a worrying level anyway. We must find ways to increase the availability of wool to the market that is free of the odium of pain and blood.
      The alternative is for our industry to continue to shrink. The risk is we could get to a point when it is no longer viable.

      • Doug Wright, April 24, 2020

        Peter, I will answer your concern in two parts.
        Firstly, I agree that the move to mules-free, plain-bodied sheep is slower than I would like. A market exists for wool from this type and the industry will miss an opportunity if it doesn’t act soon.
        Secondly; however, the result can be achieved in two sheep generations by using the genetic solution, so in 3-5 years the industry could be heading to increase the supply of wool that is in demand. To achieve this the Merino will need to act now, before it is too late.

    • Andrew Farran, April 22, 2020

      This statement begins with a big ‘if’. The bare breech, wrinkle-free sheep has been the holy grail of sheep breeding for decades. It still is.

      • Doug Wright, April 23, 2020

        The biggest and most important change I have made on my farm was to change from buying in mulesed wethers and being a wool-growing specialist to breeding my own sheep using plain-bodied, mules-free, fly-resistant bloodlines.
        These sheep are highly fertile, wean large numbers of fast-growing lambs and producing quality Merino wool. In addition, the use of chemical for flystrike is eliminated. I can assure you, there is no going back to the genetic type that I had in the past.

  4. Andrew Farran, April 22, 2020

    Confusion continues to reign. Peter Small is quite right. Mulesing as explained is clear-cut.

    As for transparency, freeze branding by that definition is not mulesing. Something either is, or it is not. QED

    As I commented on 20th April: The drift in these discussions about mulesing is astonishing; as if we have learnt nothing from them over recent decades.
    Organisations that are supposed to represent the broad interests of the wool industry have yet again lost the plot.

    The two key objectives in this policy area, and this is not politics, are to protect sheep from fly strike in grazing areas where that is prone, and to do so in a manner that avoids cutting, bloodshed and pain; however ameliorated with pain killers.

    There is no mention that I could see in the earlier report of the one technique now available that avoids cutting and pain and protects sheep against fly strike – and that is freeze branding with liquid nitrogen. I’ve tried to understand the reasoning of those who choose to continue bluffing their way over mulesing and are not prepared to acknowledge that freeze branding is not mulesing by any definition of mulesing.
    They are not prepared to argue the case in the market place and have abandoned whatever influence that may be left to them in that regard.
    I have witnessed freeze branding and have detected no pain in the animal and have watched whole flocks trotting their way back to paddocks after treatment without any sign of discomfort.

  5. Peter Small, April 21, 2020

    Well, someone ought to tell the Italians what the definition of mulesing is; the statutory definition, that is. And remind them that the removal of skin, either though selective breeding, or technology, that does not involve the use of mulesing (surgical) shears is NM ie. not mulesed.
    What is going on here? The trade, which I assumed included Italy, has been crying out for Australia to increase the supply of non-mulesed wool. We respond through our statutory levies of funding millions of dollars in research. Yet when we come up with a method to provide what the market has asked for, ie. wool provided from sheep that have not been mulesed — not had the skin removed from the breech of sheep with surgical shears — the Italians say that is not acceptable.
    Do the Italians want to increase the availability in the market of more or less NM wool? Do they indeed want an Australian wool industry at all? This is serious stuff and it’s time to stop playing games.

    • Jim Gordon, April 23, 2020

      Peter, everyone understands the definition of mulesing. Why are you belting the Italians? They are like everyone else, just trying to stay afloat. They are just responding to the welfare groups that want animal cruelty practices stopped. Breech modifications by surgical shears or a liquid nitrogen applicator is not acceptable. Everyone has to work with the welfare groups or they will bury you. They will support the genetic solution 100 percent. The thing to remember is that there are millions of them and they are all potential clients.

      • peter small, April 23, 2020

        The Italians have answered for themselves today by addressing an open letter to the chair of AWI, published in Sheep Central today.
        There must be another pathway to non-mulesed certified wool other than genetics. If there is not, why have we spent millions on researching a technological answer? How are we to meet the demand for non-mulesed wool if we don’t embrace solutions other than genetic selection? Isn’t the concern of animal rights groups about the sheep being subject to blood and pain? If there is no blood or pain how can anyone reasonably object?

  6. Norm Smith, April 21, 2020

    I hate to say I told you so, but this was the exact argument which was put to AWEX during the review. This once again shows a complete disconnect between our wool industry hierarchy and our customers.
    We need to listen to what our customers all over the world are demanding now and in the future, and overwhelmingly this is about knowing where the product has come from and how it was made.
    Wool is a unique luxury fibre which is targetted at affluent and educated consumers all over the world. We can not afford to pull the wool over their eyes with these sorts of tricks. As Andrew Blanch has rightly pointed out, the short-sightedness in these decisions will only affect integrity and trust down the pipeline.
    This is not about the grower’s right to mules, not mules or use freeze branding. Rather it is about the transparency and integrity of our industry compliance system and how we are viewed in a global fibre market place.

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