THE Australian wool industry could soon adopt a voluntary national vendor declaration system as an interim measure to address the expensive problem of dark and medullated fibre contamination.
While far from perfect due to its reliance on honesty, the system would at least raise the profile of the $100m-a-year issue.
It would also pave the way for an infinitely more accurate system should Australian Wool Innovation-funded research prove successful.
Currently, contamination is commercially unviable to physically test for because dark and medullated fibres are unevenly distributed in the fleece, making the size of the sample required impractical.
AWI announced last September it was investing $1m towards research into developing commercially viable technology for testing the risk of fibre contamination in sale lots.
But with the findings of the research pending, the introduction of a NVD has been endorsed by the Federation of Australian Wool Organisations after being proposed by the Australian Wool Testing Authority.
FAWO secretary Peter Morgan said a preliminary application, or "concept proposal", had been lodged with AWI.
"We hope it will get AWI's support because it's got the support of a very wide section of the industry," Mr Morgan said.
"I think industry as a whole accepts that exotic sheep have become part of the Australian scene.
"So it's important that the sheep industry works together to identify and manage risk to the white wool industry."
If approved, the scheme would take about six months to develop.
The system would be based on the "dark fibre risk tree" developed by Roger Foulds at the CSIRO in the mid-1980s, which calculates the probability of wool being contaminated based on aspects of the flock's history, including any contact with exotic sheep breeds.
Based on this information, the risk of the wool being contaminated would be recorded on AWTA test certificates and in sale catalogues.
The system would be similar to the one used in WA, which was introduced a few years ago after a significant increase in the number of exotic breeds in the state.
"The idea is to build on that scheme, which is not to criticise it, but to take it one step further where it can be used right around Australia," Mr Morgan said.
He said the scheme would be designed to give buyers information they could use to assess the risk of fibre contamination.
"The success or otherwise of the system will be determined by its commercial uptake," he said.
"The real measure of success will be if buyers have sufficient confidence to use it in the commercial environment.
"If successful, it will lift the image of Australian wool by lifting the confidence that buyers can have in their purchases."
But according to Elders WA wool marketing manager Ken Walker, who has seen the weaknesses of the WA version, vendor declarations are "not the answer".
"The declaration entirely leaves the onus on the grower or classer," he said.
"The difficulty is that we are really relying on honesty.
"It's doubtful whether all growers are declaring Merino flocks which have been in contact with exotic breeds."
But Mr Walker said the willingness of industry to introduce a NVD demonstrated its proactive approach to the problem.
"At least declarations make growers aware of how important the issue is to the Australian industry," he said.
"That's why I'm fully supportive of AWI spending research dollars on the matter."