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Merino wool is popular with consumers, but it comes at a cost to animal welfare. Activists say cruelty in Australia’s wool industry is widespread.
About 90 percent of the world's fine-wool exports, which are used in the manufacture of clothing, come from Australia. But critics claim that a majority of Australian sheep farms ignore animal welfare guidelines. Merino sheep are often bred to have wrinkled skin, which allows them to produce more wool. But the wrinkles also collect dirt and moisture, which can attract flies. The insects lay their eggs in the folds of skin, and the maggots that later hatch there feed on the animal's flesh. One way to prevent this infection is to remove strips of wool-bearing skin around the sheep's buttocks. This is often done without the use of anesthetics. The process is called ‘mulesing’ -- named for John W.H. Mules, who invented the procedure. Almost 90 percent of Australia's wool comes from sheep that have been subjected to mulesing. For this report, journalist Joanna Michna interviewed sheep farmers and industry insiders in Australia. She also talked to wool producers who favor mulesing, and those who are opposed to it. 75 percent of Australian wool is exported to China for processing. But do the Chinese importers distinguish between wool that comes from sheep that have been raised in humane conditions and those that haven't? And how can consumers find out more about the origins of the wool products they buy? Michna posed as a potential customer, met with a number of German retailers, and asked company representatives whether they knew where the wool they use came from. None of the 34 companies that she contacted was able to provide a definitive answer. And some products that carry an animal-welfare "seal of approval" can't prove that the wool was produced in humane conditions.