Concerns about New Zealand's reputation for animal welfare being undermined led to the Government's decision to ban live exports by sea from April 2023. Photo: Matthew Flynn/Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

As the days tick down until live animals can no longer be shipped overseas from New Zealand, dairy producers from the country’s largest export market are arguing for a change of heart

A Chinese state-owned enterprise is pushing the Government to reverse its plans for a ban of live animal exports, warning the bilateral relationship could be hurt if a U-turn does not take place.

In April last year, Agriculture Minister Damien O’Connor announced New Zealand would end the export of livestock by sea from April 2023, citing concerns about damage to the country’s reputation for animal welfare.

O’Connor commissioned a review of the practice in 2019 following concerns about the deaths and poor health of cattle shipped to Sri Lanka.

The following year, 41 crew and nearly 6000 cattle died when a live export ship capsized near Japan after departing from Napier en route to China.

The majority of New Zealand’s live cattle exports head to the Asian superpower, with Ministry of Primary Industries data showing the country has been the only destination for shipments of nearly 300,000 cattle since 2018.

When O’Connor announced the plans for a ban, he confirmed Kiwi officials had spoken to their Chinese counterparts about the decision but was not concerned about any blowback from China.

“It’s not about China. It’s about animal welfare,” O’Connor said. “We have a mature relationship with them, and I’m sure they understand our position.”

However, the China Animal Husbandry Group, a state-owned enterprise with revenue of NZ$1.2 billion, has now asked the Government to allow the continued export of breeding cattle to the country.

“The closing of this trade will also largely reduce the mutual collaboration of industry people from both sides, thus not contributing to a better bilateral relationship.”
– China Animal Husbandry Group

In a submission to Parliament’s primary production committee, which is considering the Animal Welfare Amendment Bill which would give effect to the ban, the SOE said the Chinese dairy market had grown rapidly in recent years, due to “our huge population and the increasing demand for quality dairy products”.

“Many newly established dairy farms are eager to fill with quality dairy breeding stock which have better genetics and milk production. New Zealand is regarded as a premium origin of dairy cows thanks to their reputation for good health, high milk yields and longevity – all much better than China’s domestic herd.”

The end buyers of its imports from New Zealand were carefully chosen to include only those with a strong culture of looking after cattle and excellent track records of farm management, the group’s submission said.

As an import agent, it owned and ran a large quarantine facility in the port city of Yantai which held up to 7000 breeding cattle per shipment, with “rigid quarantine rules” as well as guidelines for “constant watch of cattle conditions and punctual treatment of any sick animals”.

The SOE’s supplier used high-quality vessels and had a team of stockmen on board from New Zealand to ensure cattle travelled well regardless of the weather conditions, and argued animals who arrived from the country arrived in good condition.

“If New Zealand does decide to shut the breeding cattle export to China by sea, the Chinese buyers would lose a good choice of quality cattle and will also face increasing costs of imported cattle due to unavailable numbers from New Zealand,” it said, further warning: “The closing of this trade will also largely reduce the mutual collaboration of industry people from both sides, thus not contributing to a better bilateral relationship.”

Agriculture Minister Damien O’Connor has previously expressed confidence the Government’s live export ban will not affect its relationship with China. Photo: Lynn Grieveson

A separate submission from the JunLeBao Dairy Group, the largest dairy powder producer in China, also argued against a ban on live exports, saying it would undercut its plans to export another 60,000 Holstein heifers from New Zealand and Australia over the next five years.

“We appreciate the high protein and fat contents among NZ Holstein heifers which are valuable to our milk powder production.”

Imported cattle were housed in the company’s 17 large dairy farms, “designed and built with animal welfare…in mind”.

“We all understand that happy and healthy cattle can produce good milk which in turn leads to keep [sic] our quality milk powder and other dairy products at high standards.”

Through its charity foundation, the company had donated more than 100 million yuan (NZ$23.5m) of milk and other products to students in poor areas of Hebei province.

“As a responsible and one of the top leading dairy enterprises dedicating in [sic] providing safe and quality dairy products to consumers in China, we cherish to [sic] the trade relationship with New Zealand and in particular cherish the opportunity to buy quality dairy cattle and genetics from New Zealand. Please help us to maintain the choice through your good efforts.”

“Even where those in charge of the animals have the best intentions and receive ongoing support from New Zealand, fundamental differences…will predispose towards significant animal welfare risks in overseas livestock management systems.”

In its own submission, New Zealand’s independent National Animal Welfare Advisory Committee said a total ban was the only way to fully protect animal welfare during and after the export of livestock, given difficulties in obtaining information on their condition during the journey and once they had arrived.

“Even where those in charge of the animals have the best intentions and receive ongoing support from New Zealand, fundamental differences in animal genetics, climate, farming systems, disease, parasite risk, and feed, will predispose towards significant animal welfare risks in overseas livestock management systems,” the committee said.

Animal welfare group SAFE has expressed concern about the two-year transition period before the ban takes effect, while also proposing a ban on the export of live animals by air.

The organiser of a Timaru protest against the arrival this month of the Al Kuwait, which is set to export up to 67,468 live cattle to China, told Stuff the exports appeared to be “ramping up” rather than diminishing as the ban’s start date drew closer.

The primary production committee is due to report back on the bill by April 19.

Sam Sachdeva is Newsroom's national affairs editor, covering foreign affairs and trade, housing, and other issues of national significance.

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