By  on July 5, 2007

SYDNEY — Pitted against each other for the past two years in the Federal Court of Australia — and on the front steps of some of the world's biggest retailers — Australian Wool Innovation and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals have reached a cease-fire, at least for the time being.

Last week, following four days of mediation, AWI, the Australian wool industry's research and development arm, agreed to withdraw its two-year-old federal court case against PETA. In exchange, the animal rights organization agreed to a temporary suspension worldwide of its activities either calling for, or threatening to call for, a consumer boycott of any retailer involved in the sale of products made from mulesed wool. The agreement will last until Dec. 31, 2010 — the date by which the Australian wool industry has agreed to phase out surgical mulesing.

But PETA is obliged to maintain the moratorium beyond Dec. 31, 2007, under several provisos, including that an education program is established for Australian wool growers who mules their sheep; that a labelling system is introduced by which unmulesed wool may be identified to manufacturers and retailers, and that AWI establishes a genetic research program subject to biannual review by a panel of independent experts to be agreed upon by AWI and PETA. According to AWI, all these industry initiatives were already in the pipeline.

Both sides have claimed victory in the case.

"Any objective person has to conclude that this is a huge backdown on behalf of AWI," said PETA's Australian lawyer, Fraser Shepherd, of Sydney law firm Gilbert and Tobin, adding the group is setting up an Australian office and has no intention of taking its eyes off the mulesing issue. Noted Shepherd, "This agreement doesn't stop picketing, a call for a boycott of Australian wool; it doesn't restrict 99 percent of the campaign."

According to AWI deputy chief executive officer Les Targ, PETA was offered exactly the same deal in 2004 but refused it.

"For three years they've been taking us head on and they've seen the whites of our eyes and they've seen that we will defend this industry, and I don't think they're used to that," said Targ."We can't stop them undertaking ordinary, legal protest activity — if they want to protest outside an Australian embassy, we can't stop them," he said, adding the industry has already spent 8 million to 10 million Australian dollars, or $6.8 million to $8.5 million at current exchange, fighting PETA's campaign, including 3 million Australian dollars, or $2.6 million, in legal fees and 2 million Australian dollars, or $1.7 million, on an advertising campaign in the U.S.

Targ said, "We'll see if they do us some damage. We will continue to protect this industry's best interests. PETA knows and our wool growers know and the retailers know that there is a line that we won't let them cross."

In late 2004, PETA initiated a consumer boycott against Australian sheep farmers, mainly over the Australian farming practise of mulesing — the stripping of flesh from a lamb's hindquarters to prevent flystrike, which is endemic in Australia — and the export of live sheep.

PETA's campaign against mulesing targeted a number of retailers. After being threatened with action, Abercrombie & Fitch Co. agreed not to use Australian wool. J. Crew and the U.K.'s New Look did not join the boycott, but assured PETA they did not use mulesed wool. Benetton Group SpA refused to join any boycott, prompting a series of PETA protests outside its stores in the U.S. and Europe. The campaign against Benetton was dropped after the Italian company lent its support to an agreement signed by PETA and the Australian Wool Growers Association in August 2005, which set out specific targets for a complete phase-out of mulesing by 2010, including a condition that live exports be halted.

PETA's claims that a number of other firms joined the campaign — including American Eagle Outfitters Inc., Timberland Co. and Limited Brands Inc. — were refuted by AWI. The organization nevertheless continues to recruit celebrities to its anti-mulesing cause, including the American singer Pink and Australian actor Toni Colette, who spoke out against mulesing. However, both later apologized to Australian wool farmers, conceding they had gotten their facts wrong.

AWI initiated federal court proceedings against PETA in November 2004, serving papers on the organization's president, Ingrid Newkirk, on-camera, at the conclusion of an interview Newkirk had done on the mulesing story with Australian "60 Minutes." The thrust of the claim was that PETA had breached the secondary boycott provisions of the Trade Practices Act 1974.In February, Federal Treasurer Peter Costello proposed amendments to the legislation that would strengthen these secondary boycott provisions.

"The government's reforms would enable the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission to bring representative actions on behalf of wool growers in cases like this [PETA]," Costello told the Pastoralists and Graziers Association of Western Australia Centenary Convention in Perth last February, before adding, "Ignorant commentary from misguided celebrities would remain legal."

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