SHEEP breeders at the Australian Sheep and Wool Show at the weekend were told the consumer is king and that they just need to tell meat and wool consumers why they mules their animals.
At the Australian Sheep Breeders Association annual dinner at the show on Saturday night, Meat & Livestock Australia managing director Richard Norton covered a range of topics in his keynote speech from domestic lamb marketing to new research and EU post-Brexit negotiations.
But it was the topic of mulesing for flystrike control and Mr Norton’s comments on its likely impact on sheep meat marketing at the recent BestWool BestLamb conference in Bendigo two weeks ago that concerned some breeders at the dinner.
Two weeks ago, in answering a question, Mr Norton said the sheep meat industry was “very exposed” on the issue of mulesing. He also told Sheep Central that mulesing is hard to defend to the global consumer and one of the “great exposures” to him as a marketer of Australian red meat in America and across Europe was antagonists showing images of mulesed sheep.
At the ASBA dinner, Mr Norton said he was not going to use the “m-word”.
“There is a word that I’m not going to use, because I’ve been warned by industry not to use it — it starts with ‘m’.” However, he went on to say he did not want to have an argument or debate on whether mulesing was good or bad.
“I said (at the BestWool BestLamb conference) that ‘what we do is market your product and I don’t think you have to be very strong or have to do too much to work out what consumers think of it (mulesing).”
“Then to the credit of some media outlets, they quoted exactly what I said,” he said.
“And my point is, we market the product, we want to tell a story; we can tell the story anyway you as the industry want to tell the story and that is ‘that it is a surgical procedure done by professionals for animal health reasons and it is done with pain relief perhaps, that’s for you as an industry to decide.
“And you do it with peer-reviewed research that says the animal doesn’t suffer,” Mr Norton said.
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Consumers can change industries
Mr Norton told the sheep breeders “the consumer is king”.
“You don’t have to look far to work out why the consumer is king.”
Mr Norton said there is no scientific evidence of a human impact from hormonal growth promotants in beef yet the EU had just paid a $180 million fine for banning the import of meat with HGPs.
“The USA took them to the World Trade Organisation and the EU just paid.”
Yet consumers had also led to Russia and China banning hormonal growth promotants, he said.
“No scientific evidence whatsoever, (just) consumer perception.”
Mr Norton said consumers had also driven an EU ban on the castration of pigs.
“This is a global macro trend and we are not immune to it and just need to tell the story.”
“If you have a story to tell as to why you need to do something, then just tell the story, and that’s the point I was trying to make.”
Mr Norton said he met a lot of people when he arrived at the Australian Sheep and Wool Show on Saturday who were “absolutely outraged” about his BestWool BestLamb Conference comments.
Mr Norton said one upset man told him: “Surely consumers don’t care about first cross ewes being mulesed.”
Pushing ‘mulesing’ conversation under the rug is dangerous
The MLA leader told his dinner audience that consumers did not differentiate between sheep.
“Most of them just think a sheep is a sheep.
“Consumers also will change our industry and we have to either embrace it or work out ways to tell the story so that we can continue,” he said.
“If we can’t tell the story and continue with our practices on farm, someone else will tell us how to run the farm, because consumers want audited data around what you are doing on farm.
“They eat the product, they pay for the product and they have an expectation that they should understand what you do on farm – that’s fact, it’s not my opinion.”
Mr Norton said as a marketing organisation MLA spent millions of dollars trying to find out what consumers think.
“Not having the conversation and pushing it under the rug I think is quite dangerous.”
Society should get a grip – Roberts
In response to Mr Norton’s comments, Queensland wool grower Will Roberts said he wondered what photos of childbirth or caesarean sections would do to sex in the world.
“For our point of view it (mulesing) is one of the best things we can do from an animal welfare perspective,” Mr Roberts said.
“I think that society has just got to get a grip on themselves, and get an understanding of what happens to our animals if we don’t do it.”
Mr Norton said: “we agree and that was the exact point I made – is that we just need to tell our story … and why are we ashamed of what we do? That’s entirely my point.”
Mr Roberts said what sheep producers had “gathered” from Mr Norton’s comments that they should be ashamed of mulesing sheep, but Mr Norton said he had said that the industry was “exposed” on the issue of mulesing.
“Open and transparent as I can be I am just asking for industry to let me market your product in an open and transparent manner and let’s do it.
“I did choose my words very carefully in what I said; I said that it is a good animal welfare outcome, a surgical procedure done by professionals with pain relief, with the peer-reviewed R&D that there is no pain to the animal that it is done (to) – that is all I have said,” Mr Norton said.
“The comments were taken out of context and so be it, but I am blessed with the opportunity for the right of reply tonight, so thank you.”