FEDERAL Agriculture Minister Warren Truss continues to defend his handling of the Cormo Express incident as the livestock ship steams back to Australia two months after its 57,000 sheep were rejected by Saudi Arabia.
His back-up plan to process the sheep in Australia, if it passed quarantine, has met a wall of opposition from WAFarmers, PGA, NFF, Cattle Council of Australia, WoolProducers, the Australian Livestock Exporters' Council and processors.
They fear slaughtering the sheep in Australia could harm Australia's valuable clean green image and undermine import quarantine negotiations at world trade talks.
Some livestock exporters believed the government should not have intervened so quickly to suspend the trade and allowed exporters more time to find a solution.
But a spokesman for Federal Agriculture Minister Warren Truss said other ships were about to leave Australia and could also have become stranded.
The spokesman said the government only stepped in when he Saudi importer had exhausted efforts to sell the sheep.
He said the government had not been involved in initial negotiations.
³It was importer¹s decision not to take the Saudi offer to come back in 7-10 days time to see if the sheep would be accepted,² the spokesman said.
He said if the sheep were slaughtered at sea it would be the end of the Australian livestock export trade because world media organisations like CNN would track the ship and beam images of the slaughter around the world.
He said dumping the sheep at sea, also a dangerous task, would contravene international laws.
Australia would be seen as an international pariah, he said.
The latest plan was to offer the sheep free to South East Asian countries, such as Indonesia, Malaysia or East Timor.
This would become an option when the ship anchored off the Cocos Islands on Monday or Tuesday, when cleaning of the ship and testing for exotic diseases would continue for about another two weeks.
If a market wasn't found in Asia by the time the sheep had gone through the quarantine process, overseen by international observers, a decision would be made to slaughter the sheep on the mainland or at sea.
If, by time the Cormo Express arrived at the Cocos Islands from Kuwait - where it loaded fodder for the trip home - any exotic diseases such as rift valley fever, blue tongue and sheep pox should be apparent due to their short incubation period.
There was concern foot and mouth disease could be spread through feed, although Federal Agriculture Department spokesman Carson Creagh said the manufacturing process of the Middle Eastern feed mill had already been checked.
It was found to be safe because the grain-based feed pellets had been steam- cooked, which would have killed any FMD virus, he said.
Mr Creagh, said claims of a BSE risk was extremely imaginative, because sheep did not contract BSE and that feed pellets were only made from plant material.
It is still not known why the shipment was rejected as the official Saudi reason - excessive scabby mouth levels - has been disputed by Australian and international animal health veterinarians.