A long tradition of Italian garment makers using Australian superfine merino wool is in jeopardy, as Europeans grow frustrated by a lack of progress to phase out the controversial practice of mulesing.
Italians have used Australia’s premium superfine merino wool for 150 years to produce some of the world’s finest garments.
But after more than a decade of calling for action on mulesing, Italian industry leaders say they are fed up and are looking for wool from Australia’s competitors.
Mulesing involves removing strips of skin from a lamb’s buttocks to prevent the build-up of faeces and urine, which can attract blowflies that lay maggots.
Critics claim mulesing is a cruel practice, but proponents argue it is needed to prevent flystrike, which can kill sheep.
Italian wool trader Claudio Lacchio said Australian woolgrowers needed to respond to retailer and consumer demand.
“We’re very frustrated, because the very first time we spoke about mulesing was 12 or 13 years ago and there was the first deadline to be met in 2010,” he said.
“We’re very frustrated by the fact that it doesn’t seem to be recognised that there is demand for unmulesed wool, at least in Europe.
“We get everyday inquiries for unmulesed wool.”
Move on to find alternatives
Australia produces a quarter of the world’s wool, with 75 per cent of it going to clothing and fashion.
Mr Lacchio owns a trading company in Italy and Switzerland, which sells wool to Italian textile mills.
For 25 years he worked for one of Europe’s biggest top-makers, G Schneiders.
Speaking exclusively to the ABC, he said there were alternatives in the market.
“They’re not of the same quality or same quantity of superfine wool,” Mr Lacchio said.
“But definitely there is a move for our clients to find an alternative, if we can’t get the answers from Australia, and it doesn’t look like we’re getting the answer we want at the moment.
“Either Australia is prepared to meet this problem or people will find an alternative.
“We were told last year by AWI that ‘You [Italians] have no alternative but to buy wool from Australia’. That is partially true.
Do woolgrowers get any rewards for not mulesing?
Mr Lacchio is reluctant to promote a premium price for unmulesed wool because, he said, animal welfare was equal to the quality of wool in the mind of consumers.
But there were a few contracts offering premiums.
Paul Vallely, a superfine wool farmer near Crookwell on the Southern Tablelands of NSW, has not mulesed merino lambs for 17 years.
For the first time, his company AAFT has a contract offering a 300 cent per kilogram premium for wool from sheep that have not been mulesed.
The so-called “growers call” contract states the “global luxury garment industry has shown a preference for raw materials produced in accordance with animal welfare standards, that centres on the practice of mulesing”.
“We met CEOs of Italy’s top textile mills and the very first thing they said to us is they were disappointed Australia had abandoned the plan to end mulesing,” Mr Vallely said.
For five years, New England Wool, which has links to Italian textile makers Barberis and Reda, has offered premiums for select superfine wool.
The company this year offered an even higher premium for unmulesed wool.
If all conditions are met, the “bring back the premium” contract offered 10 and 29 per cent above the current market price.
Mulesing without pain
According to Mr Lacchio, retailers in Europe are telling the Italian textile industry that pain relief must be used in animal surgery.
He said where mulesing was necessary, it must be pain-free.
“We are not that arrogant or pretentious to dictate [to] the Australian growers what to do or not to do,” Mr Lacchio said.
“As much as we know how to produce a nice fabric, we don’t want anyone to interfere with that.
But Mr Lacchio said Australian wool industry leaders must tell wool producers that mulesing was an issue that was not going away.
Richard Halliday, president of industry body WoolProducers, said all farmers were encouraged to use pain relief on their animals.
“We support mulesing with pain relief. Maybe that pain relief discussion needs to be even stronger,” he said.
“It may even lead to a pre-operative as well as post-operative pain relief.”
Mr Halliday this year trialled a new anaesthetic prior to lamb marking.
“To combine the two products [anaesthetic and pain relief] it cost approximately $1.30 per lamb in our trial this year,” he said.
“On our property, we could definitely see a difference in the way the lambs reacted after the procedure.
“They went off happily, there was no ill effects, they walked off and suckled to mum and walked off.”
Do meat eaters care?
A study of 16 meat markets over seven years has shown a steady rise in interest for animal welfare.
Lisa Sharp, chief of marketing and communication with Meat and Livestock Australia, said animal welfare was not just a concern for educated people in wealthy countries, but for people throughout South-East Asia, China, Japan, the Middle East, America and Europe.
“It’s extraordinary that if you think about the top five purchase drivers, sustainability, of which animal welfare is part, appears in the top five for nearly all those markets,” she said.
“So it does transcend income and stages of market development.
“That indicates it truly is a mega trend, it’s not a fad.”
Ms Sharp said supermarkets had responded to consumer concerns, which had prompted famers to change how they farmed.
“We need to understand not only how consumers behave today, but how they’ll behave in the future,” she said.
Italian delegation thwarted in efforts to tell woolgrowers
More than a year on from an international wool conference where an Italian industry delegation raised a sternly worded motion for action on mulesing, Mr Lacchio said there had been little progress.
In that motion, the Italian delegation urged the wool industry to be open and transparent about its animal welfare and mulesing, saying the situation was worse today than 10 years ago.
Parts of the motion read:
“We, in Italy and Europe, are frankly disappointed by a never-ending list of undelivered promises, unmet deadlines, mistaken assumptions and inadequate conclusions.
“We don’t feel backed and protected in our efforts to try and promote wool, and European brands are considered to be quite influential in deciding which kind of raw material is used in the collections.
“What we are recommending is to treat our animals in exactly the same way as a human being who should undergo any kind of surgery.
“If we do that, what could we be blamed for then?”
Source: Letter of motion from Italian textile industry delegation to International Wool Textile Organisation (IWTO)
The motion by the Italian sector acknowledged mulesing might be necessary where there was no alternative, but there should be pain relief both pre and post surgery.
The motion also called for a world’s best animal welfare standard to be imposed.
The Superfine Wool Growers Association Board will vote on a motion about mulesing on Friday.