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14 December 2011

Silent exporters are like lambs to the slaughter


Google "NZ halal lamb" and of the 10 hits on the first page, seven are links to stories or comments on the iniquitous New Zealand meat industry and how it is deviously passing off Muslim lamb to British consumers.

This story first broke in September last year when the Daily Mail revealed that 70 per cent of New Zealand lamb sold in Britain was halal slaughtered - and added in its headline: "this is NOT on the label!

Outraged readers then wrote in to expand on the inferences left for them by the tabloid. Two grievances emerged: Another faith's beliefs were being forced on them and halal slaughter was cruel.

The most popular comments were those from people who vowed never to buy New Zealand lamb again. After more than 300 people had had their say, the Mail closed the comments. But the issue didn't go away.

A few months ago, on a Daily Mail chat page someone asked why New Zealand lamb was cheaper than British lamb. No-one had an answer to that, but they had plenty to say about how New Zealand lamb was inhumanely killed by the halal method.

The biggest worry is that at no time during this debate have I seen anyone from our meat industry or the High Commission in London contributing to the online comments with New Zealand's side of the story.

They could have made some very good points. Such as, lambs are stunned before having their throats cut and the practice meets New Zealand's animal welfare laws.

The ignorance expressed by the commenters was appalling. Did you know our milk products are also halal? That our Maori freezing workers have all been put out of work by Muslims?

I suppose the New Zealand reasoning was that by ignoring it, the issue would go away. But that just gives the ignorant and bigoted free rein to say whatever they like. And to many people, silence is a form of guilt.

This no-comment policy also misses opportunities to promote the unarguably positive aspects of New Zealand farming. The question on the Daily Mail chat page about the cheapness of New Zealand lamb was not answered.

Someone replied that it was because our lamb was cheaper to produce (correct), but then added: "I worry about why it is so cheap to produce in NZ. What practices do NZ follow to ensure that their lamb is so cheap? Or, more worryingly, do not follow."

This was a perfect opportunity for someone to rave about our temperate climate, year-round green pastures, efficient farming systems, high animal-welfare standards, lack of diseases and hygienic processing industry.

But not a word was said. The only impression the reader was left with - once again - was that we were cruelly slaughtering our lambs.

Keeping on top of such negative comment on news and blog sites would be terribly time-consuming. People in our key industries would have to be continually trawling the web and be ready to react at a moment's notice.

But someone has offered to do this for us. He's WHAM's Trevor Walton, a publisher, journalist and public relations consultant for more than 40 years. He proposes a two-pronged approach.

First will be 24-hour monitoring of news and social media. Backing that up will be a website that people can be referred to that will explain in detail how our primary produce is grown, processed and shipped to market.

He gives an example: "An article appears in the Guardian at 2am New Zealand time. Someone has got the wrong end of the stick. It is crucial to respond quickly in order to put the story back on the right track." To do that, he would have approval to reply in the name of the wronged organisation.

"Meanwhile, we would send out texts and emails to our grass-roots advocates and lobbyists to get in and say in their own words why the claims are wrong."

In talks with the agriculture, horticulture and forest industries earlier this year, this proposal received widespread support - with the notable exception of our largest exporter, Fonterra.

He says that has forced his team to have a rethink. "You can't have a strategy defending the Kiwi provenance unless the dairy industry is on board."

I am staggered that the dairy industry, with all its negative publicity about dirty rivers and unethical palm kernel, has not learned the lesson of active engagement with both its critics and those consumers who are genuinely looking for the truth.

Source: Fairfax Media. To read the full story, click here.

- Jon Morgan, The Dominion Post

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