The issue of kangaroo meat consumption already divides the nation. So what are the issues of Skippy hopping across the seas to China? Sharon Jiang reports.
‘If you do this to my people and to our totem, it will bring a curse upon you.’ That was the stern warning Uncle Max ‘Dulamunmun’ Harrison gave to the Chinese Government Officials. Uncle Max is a respected Aboriginal elder and holds great wisdom on Aboriginal Culture and Lore.
Such a cautionary tale made the Chinese officials shudder. It certainly wasn’t something they expected to hear when discussing the exportation of kangaroo meat to their country.
Before Uncle Max left, he left one more message: ‘If you eat the malu, then you’re eating me.’ It was clear that this meat wasn’t something to be carelessly tampered with.
The Chinese market for the human consumption of kangaroo meat is not yet open. But it could be just a hop, skip and a jump away from now.
The Australian Society of Kangaroos states that a ‘new trade protocol between Australia and China now opens the door for the industry’. ABC News reported in July this year that the Australian Department of Agriculture met with Chinese importers and the Chinese government to ‘discuss kangaroo import opportunities.’
The deal, if successful, could be signed at the end of the year.
But is Australia ready to take this leap?
The kangaroo industry and the Australian Government see many benefits in this new opportunity. Animal activists, on the other hand, believe that it would be detrimental to the survival of kangaroos where food safety concerns would be exacerbated.
‘It’s a brutal industry which has many hygiene issues. The welfare to the animals is also a serious issue, and often, the animals are not shot cleanly,’ said Mark Pearson MLC from the Animal Justice Party.
Mr. Pearson travelled to China early this year in an attempt to stop the exportation of kangaroo meat. He believes if the market opens up in China, it will put so much pressure on the industry to kill more kangaroos resulting in a complete decimation of the species.
‘We want the industry to collapse. I think kangaroos will be driven to complete extinction if such a market is allowed to flourish. Greed will drive it as usual,’ said Mr. Pearson.
In a 1999 Australian Government report on the commercial harvesting of kangaroos, kangaroos have a ‘multiple status as pest, resource and national symbol.’ The commercial harvesting of kangaroos is justified by the kangaroo industry to control the supposed ‘explosion’ of this pest.
‘On one side of the fence, it’s a protected wild animal. On the other side, due to agri-business and when it comes into competition with sheep and fodder during droughts, it’s considered a pest,’ continued Mr. Pearson.
The question of sustainability is one of great controversy.
John Kelly, executive officer at the Kangaroo Industries Association of Australia believes the practice is very sustainable with 60 years of commercial harvest.
‘The quota the government issues is always about 15% of the total kangaroo population and we know that the level of harvest is sustainable,’ Mr. Kelly said.
Available data released by the Australian Department of the Environment estimated 34 million kangaroos in commercial harvest areas in 2011.
Mr. Kelly is confident that even if doors open to China, no matter how large the demand is the supply will always be at a sustainable level.
‘It’s an extremely tightly regulated industry,’ Mr. Kelly continued.
Penny Olsen & Tim Low found that ‘current rates of harvest are sustainable’ where it is even ‘near optimal’ in their 2006 report for the Kangaroo Management Advisory Panel.
The Australian Wildlife Society states on their website that the ‘current kangaroo population is the highest ever recorded’ despite the commercial kangaroo harvest.
However independent ecologists, animal rights groups and various Government reports were quick to debunk the myth about exploding kangaroo populations and questioned the sustainability.
NSW ecologist Ray Mjadwesch discovered in his report that since 2001 kangaroo populations have declined so drastically by 40 percent, that kangaroos fulfill the criteria as a threatened species.
‘A lot of those myths about over breeding and their populations exploding are all about demonizing kangaroos so they can justify killing them,’ said Nikki Sutterby from the Australian Society for Kangaroos.
Ms. Sutterby urges the public to look at the Australian Government’s data. Annual quota submission reports from SA, Qld, NSW and WA show that across most of Australia, kangaroos are at critical densities of less than five per sq/km across most of the states. She believes it was mainly due to drought and unrelenting commercial hunting.
‘Kangaroos are not in huge proportions and the numbers are in decline at less than 5 per square kilometer across Australia,’ said Ms. Sutterby.
Australian Senator Lee Rhiannon also points to this decline and said that collated national population estimates across commercial hunting zones in the four mainland states recorded a 40 percent drop from 2001 to 2011.
‘So if the Chinese decided to buy our kangaroo meat, the implications for the conservation of kangaroos will be dire,’ continued Ms. Sutterby.
The exportation of Australian kangaroo meat overseas is not a new concept and has had various hygiene issues in the past.
Russia allowed the import between 2002 and 2008 however the $180 million meat trade was suspended in 2008 after repeated hygiene breaches. In 2012, Russia lifted the suspension for a while. Fast-forward to March 2014, it was banned once again after finding traces of E.coli bacteria and salmonella.
‘There are very high levels of E.coli and salmonella because of the very nature that they’re killed,’ said Mr. Pearson.
Both Mr. Pearson and Mrs. Sutterby explained the unhygienic nature of the harvesting process. Kangaroos are killed, gutted, processed and transported in the outback, with the dust and flies, and in high temperatures over a long period of time before being refrigerated. The temperatures in the remote outback can remain at about 35 or 37 degrees Celsius all night.
‘In comparison, if a farmer was to shoot a sheep, gut it on the back of his truck and spend 14 hours driving into town to take it to the abattoir, he’d be prosecuted. But these guys are doing it with kangaroos,’ said Mr. Pearson.
A report by Dror Ben-Ami, ecologist and Research Fellow with the UTS Think Tank for Kangaroos (THINKK), stated that ‘hygiene standards surrounding the production of kangaroo meat do not presently meet the Australian or the European standards.’
‘It just proves that the industry cannot adhere to international food hygiene standards,’ said Ms. Sutterby.
Mr. Kelly paints a different picture: one where kangaroo meat is touted as a healthy and hygienic red meat. He said the product is closely monitored in every processing premise several times a day to ensure it meats the safe levels set by the Government. The industry has seen 60 years of intensive consumption of kangaroo meat and Mr. Kelly said there was never one incidence of anyone getting sick from kangaroo meat.
He denied that Russia banned Australian kangaroo meat due to traces of E.coli.
‘They didn’t claim to find traces of E.coli. They claimed to find traces of coliforms, which is a very large group of bacteria and it is essentially on everything,’ said Mr. Kelly.
The 1999 Government Report stated that there is a possibility of kangaroo meat becoming infected with salmonella, but it is ‘not more prone than other meats.’ The conclusion from this report was kangaroos are not more dangerous than any other forms of meat such as lamb, beef or chicken.
The Kangaroo Industry is a big business currently worth over $500m/yr. to the Australian economy and employs over 4000 people, according to the Kangaroo Industries Association of Australia.
Mr. Kelly is confident that if the market opens to China, it will have substantial benefits to the agricultural industry and the Australian economy.
‘It not only benefits the harvester’s direct income but also secondary benefits that accrue from the harvest,’ said Mr. Kelly.
Barnaby Joyce, Minister for Agriculture and Water Resources, announced in September a $350,000 boost to help kangaroo exporters get a leg up in the overseas market. This was under the Coalition Government’s Package Assisting Small Exporters programme.
‘Access to premium overseas markets is an important element of driving profits back to Australian farmers,’ Minister Joyce said.
Niall Blair, NSW Primary Industries Minister, told ABC News that many NSW jobs and families rely upon the Kangaroo Industry.
Queensland Senator Ron Boswell spoke to the Katherine Times and said the income that flows out of kangaroo shooting and processing would boost small country towns.
Australia’s agricultural industry might be ready for this leap but Uncle Max’s warning may still be ringing in the ears of the Chinese officials.
‘If you do this to my people and to our totem, it will bring a curse upon you.’
Even if the food safety and sustainability issues are fully addressed, as one Chinese Government official whispered: ‘This meat may be too dark for us.’