Fri, Nov 21, 2003 - Page 5 News List

Activists delay sheep shipment

TAINTED GOODS Animal rights activists claimed to have mixed pig meat with the animals' feed, forcing the shipment to Muslim countries to be held back pending tests

AP , SYDNEY

Animal rights activists claimed victory yesterday in their attempts to sabotage Australia's lucrative live animal export business when a shipment of 70,000 sheep destined for the Middle East was delayed as quarantine officials investigated claims the livestock had been fed pig meat.

The animals were bound for Islamic countries, but because they may have eaten pork, they would be considered inedible in those countries.

"This is a fantastic result and we are pleased that our protest has worked and the sheep will not be loaded," Animal Liberation campaigner Ralph Hahnheuser said.

Investigators said yesterday they'd found animal product on the feedlot, dismissing suggestions by the owner of the feedlot that the whole operation was a hoax. Chief Veterinary Officer Hugh Millar said more tests would be conducted on the material found.

A 40-year-old man was arrested in Portland near where the sheep were being held, and was helping police with their enquires, a police spokeswoman said on condition of anonymity. There were no other details immediately available.

Australian livestock exporters are already reeling from a recent scandal in which a boatload of sheep was stranded for weeks in Middle Eastern waters following claims by Saudi Arabia that the animals were diseased.

Those sheep were finally unloaded in Eritrea after the Australian government spent millions of dollars buying them back and providing extra food to keep them alive while at sea for 11 weeks. Even so, about 3,770 of the 50,000 sheep died.

The Animal Liberation group said on Wednesday that protesters had snuck onto a feedlot in the city of Portland in the southern state of Victoria and spread pig meat into the sheep's water and food system.

Feedlot owner Philip King said his security guards had not seen any activity at the site, and called the operation a hoax. A video recording the group released to local media as evidence of the operation was inconclusive.

The sheep were supposed to board the export carrier Al Shuwaikh yesterday, but quarantine officials said they would not allow the shipment to go ahead until the investigation was complete.

"These sheep will definitely not be loaded today," said Carson Creigh, a spokesman for the Australian Quarantine and Inspection Service.

If the protesters are charged and convicted of feeding the sheep animal meat they could face fines of up to A$24,000 (US$17,000) as well as a possible two-year prison sentence, under state law.

The protesters denied breaking the law.

"We sought legal and veterinary advice before we took this action and we are confident that we acted within the law," Hahnheuser said.

Animal rights campaigners call the live export trade cruel because the animals are shipped in containers that often are severely crowded and hot.

Australia ships live animals to Islamic countries that require halal meat products -- meat from an animal that has been killed by a Muslim who slits its jugular vein and drains all the blood from the carcass.

The trade is worth A$195 million (US$140 million) a year, and Prime Minister John Howard has insisted it will continue.

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