WELLINGTON, New Zealand — New Zealand announced Wednesday it is banning the export of live cows and other farm animals by sea due to welfare concerns.
Agriculture Minister Damien O’Connor said the ban would take up to two years to be fully enforced to give those who had invested in the business a chance to transition out.
The country temporarily suspended such exports last year after a ship carrying 5,800 cattle that was bound for China sank in stormy weather near Japan, killing more than 40 crew members and the animals. Officials had already begun a review of live exports the previous year.
O’Connor said the risk to the country’s reputation outweighed any financial gains because there was no way to safeguard the welfare of the animals once they left New Zealand’s shores.
“New Zealand must stay ahead of the curve in a world where animal welfare is under increasing scrutiny if we truly want to be the most ethical producers of food,” he said.
The value of the nation’s live animal exports last year was 261 million New Zealand dollars ($184 million), a threefold increase from the previous year after exporters rushed to beat any potential ban. It still accounted for only a tiny fraction of the nation’s overall agricultural exports, which are its biggest earner of foreign income.
O’Connor said officials had informed China of plans for the ban but had yet to hear a response. He said he wasn’t worried about offending China, which is New Zealand’s largest trading partner and a big purchaser of live cattle.
“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.”
The ban does not affect live animals that are transported by air, such as race horses.
Federated Farmers, a lobby group for farmers, said its exporters adhered to very high animal welfare standards and it was surprised by the ban. Still, the group said the transition period would give farmers a chance to honor existing commitments and consider their future options.
Opposition lawmaker Mark Cameron, from the libertarian ACT Party, said the decision was emotive, costly and a “kick in the guts” to farmers.
Animal rights group SAFE, which has long sought a ban, welcomed the news. Chief executive Debra Ashton said animals would no longer suffer in countries with lower welfare standards. Still, Ashton said it was worried that hundreds of thousands of cows could still be exported by sea over the next two years and that air exports of animals like baby chickens and eels would continue.