A delay in resolving amicably issues in import of Australian sheep, that were suspected to be infected, could hurt trade ties between Pakistan and Australia.
Meat merchant PK Meat and Food imported sheep from a livestock company, Wallard Rural Exports. A report leaked out to media suggesting import of infected animal cargo, rejected by Bahrain, led to public anxiety and the decision of culling by the authorities in Karachi, citing public health concerns.
The importer contested the merit of decision in the court that stayed the culling till provision of scientific report on the status of health of sheep. The exporter’s representatives also held press conferences defending the deal.
The background research, however, revealed inconsistencies in the position held by varied stakeholders vacillating at will to suit their interests.
There is fear that Pakistan has yet to establish its position over the fitness of imported animals beyond doubt and may find itself steeped in problems as the saga unfolds.
The deficient testing facilities, lack of cohesion between different tiers of the government, inefficiency in relevant departments and ineffective economic diplomacy weaken its ability to deal effectively with such kind of challenges. .
The involvement of the court might highlight the loose ends of governance beside hammering the need to put in place an efficient system of regulating the private sector.
The said case, publicised through media, risks reputation of Pakistan and Australia in the global trading circles.
To contain the damage to its image , following the decision in Pakistan to cull 21000 sheep, Australia has already put on hold sheep exports.
According to Australian press, the relevant authority is now seeking further assurances from livestock exporters to avoid recurrence of such an embarrassing incidence elsewhere. However, in Pakistan the concerned ministries and departments have yet to realise the gravity of the situation and possible fallout on the country’s trade.
The Trade Development Authority of Pakistan did not show any interest when reached over phone. “It does not concern us. The federal quarantine department clears import cargo. If there has been a lapse they need to be contacted”, an executive told Dawn confirming that no one in the authority has been allotted the responsibility to follow the case.
The higher ups in the ministry of commerce were caught off guard and could not offer an informed opinion for they believed the matter falls in the domain of the recently created ministry of food security and research.
Allah Buksh Lehri, the federal secretary ministry of food security and research told Dawn over phone from Islamabad that a fresh team of technical experts has been constituted. “The team is in Karachi to carry out proper investigation and establish all facts to fix responsibility. I am expecting an authentic medical report on sheep stock on Saturday”, he said.
Some other departments such as customs have also initiated inquiries to dispel the impression of corruption at its end following the decision to allow unloading of suspected cargo.
“We cleared 21000 sheep after obtaining import documents from consignee and the Australian exporter that included commercial invoice, certificate of origin, bill of lading and certificate of health from local and Australian authorities”, a senior official told Dawn.
He, however, could not explain suspension of an official in the case if the operation was as transparent as he claimed.
Stephen Meervald, managing partner of Wellard, dashed to Pakistan to defend the company’s interest. The Australian embassy in Pakistan firmly stood behind their private sheep exporter.
Meerwald contested the doubt regarding the fitness of the livestock consignment in a press conference. Australian High Commissioner Peter Heyward supported him through a statement that maintained that the livestock delivered to Pakistan was inspected by the Australian government and met international standards.
Answering questions electronically, he declined to disclose the value of the earlier deal of the same consignment to Bahrain and later transaction with the Pakistani importer. The details could have allayed the fear of dumping of sub-standard merchandise.
“This is commercial — in confidence information. Neither party knew the terms of other transaction”, Stephen Meerwald said.
Saqib Butt, son of PK owner Mehmood Butt, however, told Dawn over telephone from Islamabad that it was his company that bought the 75000 sheep on board Ocean Drover. “About 7000 sheep were dropped at Muscat and 46500 in Qatar on facing problems at Bahrain the cargo was diverted to Karachi”, he said. Butt clearly contradicts Meerwald here.
Regarding identification mark on each sheep the Australian exporter said: “Most carry ear mark and ear tag of the property of origin in Australia”.
On the quality of health standards in Pakistan, he said: “Import health conditions vary between countries and Pakistan’s conditions for Australian livestock are similar to those in Gulf States where Australian sheep fetch premium prices because of their reputation of healthy protein source”. He avoided a direct answer on the quality of standards.
Commenting on the possible beneficiaries behind the scam, he said: “No one will benefit. It will damage reputation of trading partners and cast doubt on Pakistan’s reliability as a trade partner if it fails to ensure that protocols will be respected”.
“Wellard and the Australian government know that the sheep are healthy and fit for human consumption, therefore, forces at play are running an agenda that does not reflect reality”, he concluded without exposing the forces behind the controversy, giving a passing reference of Pakistani observers who consider “the conflict between various levels of the government and their agencies to be the likely source of the current problem”.
The distressed Mehmud Butt saw a long trail of unpleasant fallouts of the scam on the trade. “It will weigh heavy on business sentiment.”
The government needs to put in place an effective system to restrain corporate greed. It also needs to be equally conscious of the value of the private sector to bridge investment gap.