With the re-commencement of live sheep exports to the Middle East, and continued discussion papers and reviews, it is a good time to highlight the changing nature of the sheepmeat trade, and why a mix of sheepmeat sources is important to the region.
In May, Sheep Producers Australia, along with Livecorp and with assistance from Meat and Livestock Australia, visited abattoirs, feedlots, wholesalers and retailers throughout the Middle East.
The objective was to see first-hand Australian sheep in the feedlots and abattoir system, as well as gauge the reaction to the moratorium on live exports into the northern summer.
With the many live export reviews taking place in Australia around export standards, heat stress and regulatory frameworks, it was essential that sheep producers gain a first-hand understanding of the condition of Australian sheep and conditions in market.
It was also important to understand the importing countries' point of view on meat imports.
Food security is a real issue in the Middle East and one Australians do not often (if ever) consider.
When combined with the totally different relationship consumers have had in purchasing their meat in this region, we begin to understand why the live trade is such an important sector.
It is common for family members to visit a market or abattoir, and choose the sheep they wish to have slaughtered for their requirements, or during festivals, to donate to the more needy in their community.
The abattoirs, which in Dubai and Kuwait were very modern or recently opened, have viewing areas where the customer can talk to the meat workers and advise them on how they wish the cuts of meat to be processed.
Australia has insisted that sheep from Australia must go through a closed supply chain and comply with the Exporter Supply Chain Assurance System (ESCAS) to ensure that sheep are slaughtered in a properly accredited abattoir.
However, as with every market there are trends of change. With larger expat communities and an increasing role for supermarkets, as well as a younger generation challenging family tradition, there is a large market for sheep carcases as well as boxed meat.
While in the supermarkets, large volumes of carcases from Romania were on display as well as cuts from the sub-continent and African states.
There were reportedly carcases entering from a few sources in the EU. Combine this with high quality boxed product coming from New Zealand and Australia, and you become aware of the high levels of competition in the market.
One region is in the process of upgrading their abattoir and feedlot sector, suspending live imports while this is occurring.
In the interim they will be importing carcases, so the questions remains whether the market will totally revert to locally killed product once the carcase supply chain becomes part of many businesses.
Australia has a balancing role to play.
We need to continue to export live sheep into the region but, at the same time, due to changing consumer and market trends, leverage our reputation and position to capitalise on the growing opportunities for chilled and carcase meat.
This is an opportunity that we are more than capable of meeting.
The Middle Eastern markets present major challenges for Australia.
As a trusted partner in providing a large piece of the food security puzzle, the live export trade is seen as a vital part of Australia's presence.
This places enormous pressure on our exporters to ensure the trade is managed with the welfare standards Australians expect for 'their' animals.
At the same time, part of the market is in transition to carcases and boxed product.
This opens the sheepmeat trade to a very large level of competition, which can be affected by the politics of the live trade.
The increase in transparency around the live trade is essential for it to continue, along with the independent observers put in place by the regulator.
The trade must be managed very carefully from both an animal welfare and political stance.
The efforts over the past year have been essential in providing secure markets, especially for WA and SA sheep producers that rely heavily on the live trade to keep the operations viable.
This can become even more vital if stock need to be turned off rapidly as drought conditions return.
It is essential that Australia continues to work on shelf life issues for carcases and boxed product, to allow Australian product to compete in the ever-growing supermarket and food service areas which are likely to become the largest segments of the markets.
The role of exports, traders, MLA, the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and the Department of Agriculture and Water Resources as well as Australian sheep producers is important in continuing to navigate the many issues of the trade.
The region is important for red meat exports as a whole.
As live exports since May have been successful, and with live exports resuming under very watchful eyes in September, it would seem the trade is turning a corner, and Australia will continue to be a major partner to the Middle East in terms of both food security and providing high quality carcases and cuts.
Transparency and vigilance seem to be the key.
- Stephen Crisp is the policy director for Sheep Producers Australia