VICTORIA Police today asked for wool industry help to find those responsible for the substitution of Merino fleece lines valued at tens of thousands of dollars in export consignments.
The police are investigating the substitution of at least 16 bales of high value 19-21 micron fleece wool with lower value types, before its export to China.
At current auction prices, the original 19-21 micron Merino wool tested by the Australian Wool Testing Authority before its substitution could have been worth $1813-$2130 per 185kg bale.
Victoria Police said a number of wool brokers have reported some wool consignments have been tampered with over the past couple of months. It’s believed that wool lots based in Melbourne had their high value wool removed from the original bales and replaced with significantly lower value wool.
The substituted wool was then exported to China, where buyers discovered the bales had been tampered with and replaced with inferior wool, a Victoria Police statement said. It is believed the incidents have been occurring since May 2017.
Detective Inspector Jamie Templeton said the reported incidents involved the substitution of fleece wool with low value sweepings or locks, shedding breed and black wool. Some bales have been partially substituted with lower value wool. There was a possibility of more substituted wool in consignments en route to China, he said.
Police have ‘persons of interest’
Detective Inspector Templeton said the police investigation has identified some “persons of interest”, but more information is being sought from industry sources.
“There are a number of people who have had access to that wool all the way along the line.
“We want people to talk about it and I suspect that people who are involved in the industry will have knowledge,” he said.
“There will be some who will be peripheral players, who might see an opportunity to save themselves, because the police are taking this seriously and don’t want to be caught up in it and come forward.”
The investigation was focussing on when and where people had an opportunity to substitute the wool, he said.
“Clearly, we’ve identified some areas where there has been some opportunity.”
Det Superintendent Templeton said the issue in the theft was not one of traceability, but involved someone going around the current system. He said the reports of wool theft are considered extremely serious.
“This is not only due to the total value of the wool stolen but also the potential damage it poses to the Australian export industry.
“These thefts are incredibly damaging to the livelihood and reputations of the brokers who export this product,” he said.
“We believe there may be more people who have been a victim of these thefts and we encourage them to come forward and report it to police.”
Wool substitution damaging to industry
Peak wool grower body WoolProducers Australia said it is disappointed to learn of the recent discovery of wool substitution.
WoolProducers chief executive officer Jo Hall said Australian wool growers produce the best quality Merino wool in the world, but incidents like these are damaging to the integrity of our industry.
In 2016/17, Australia exported 254mkg of wool to China, representing 79.3% of the Australian wool clip, with a value of $2.4 billion.
“China is clearly our dominant trade partner and we simply cannot afford to erode any trust or confidence with them, which is why any case of wool substitution is so concerning,” Ms Hall said.
WoolProducers said the Australian wool industry has robust processes in place to ensure the quality and integrity of the product to our trade partners.
“Whilst this incident is completely unacceptable, the fact that it has been uncovered demonstrates that the integrity systems in place for the quality assurance of Australian wool do work,” Ms Hall said.
“As this is an active police investigation very little can be said on this specific incident; however, WoolProducers is of the firm belief that anybody caught substituting Australian wool has no place in our industry.
“Substitution of Australian wool jeopardises the excellent reputation that Australian woolgrowers and the wider industry have strived to achieve,” she said.
eBale would not prevent wool theft
Australian Wool Exchange chief executive officer Mark Graves said electronic bale identification would not prevent wool substitution incidents similar to the case currently being investigated by Victorian Police.
He expected that electronic traceability of wool via AWEX’s proposed eBale system would help in theft cases, “but at the end of the day it won’t stop this type of activity; I would love to0 say it will, but it won’t.
“But the more visible and the more prominent and the more information that is available, the easier it is to trace wool backwards and forwards through the supply chain, which eBale will allow us to do,” he said.
“It will certainly hopefully speed up any detection and identify bales more quickly than what we’ve been able to in the past.”
Anyone with information is urged to contact Crime Stoppers on 1800 333 000 or submit a confidential crime report at www.crimestoppersvic.com.au