CANBERRA (Reuters) - Australia's $2.2 billion wool industry rejected calls on Thursday to immediately stop a "barbaric" practice of cutting away loose skin from sheep to stop maggots, saying there was no workable alternative.
European and U.S. fashion houses including German-based C&A and Hugo Boss, sporting goods firm Adidas and Abercrombie & Fitch have barred Australian wool over a practice called mulesing, in which farmers remove loose skin from near the anus of lambs.
Wool growers had agreed to phase out mulesing by 2010, but at a yearly meeting on Wednesday of the industry's research and marketing body, Australian Wool Innovation, or AWI, producers voted for a board largely opposed to the deadline.
"One can't ask for the impossible, not even Marks and Spencer. The facts are that there's no viable alternative, and that's that," said new board member Laurence Modiano, referring to the major British retail chain.
Animal rights activists want mulesing stopped immediately and claim the treatment, meant to prevent maggot infestation, is inhumane. They have successfully called for international boycotts of Australian wool.
Earlier this year the German newspaper Bild called the practice a "barbaric tradition" in Australian farming.
"It's going to invigorate animal rights activists," said Jason Baker, an activist at the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, referring to the wool producers' decision. "Retailers can go to any other country in the world and get unmulesed wool."
Timberland, Perry Ellis International and Victoria's Secret of the United States have already introduced bans on Australian wool while in Sweden, police and military have stopped using it in uniforms.
A former head of Australian Wool Innovation, Brian van Rooyen, said retailers around the world expected the industry to stick to the 2010 deadline to phase out mulesing.
"Retailers are not prepared to fight the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals at their front doors over the mulesing issue," van Rooyen told the Age newspaper.
Glenys Oogjes, who heads Animals Australia, an animal protection group, said boycotts would widen unless the industry took advantage of mulesing alternatives.
"Many farmers are moving already to change the genetic structure of their flocks so they don't have to mules," she said.
In July, Australian sheep farmers began to separate out wool at auctions that had been produced without using mulesing and this year said they had developed a chemical treatment which led to the painless shedding of excess skin without an open wound.
Editing by Sanjeev Miglani