to roo, or not to roo, that is the question...
There are many shades of grey when looking at ethical food production. In many cases when it comes to best practice ethical producers and animal advocates seem to be on the same page, but not when it comes to the issue of kangaroo meat. If I put my chef's hat on, I'd say that all roo is not equal.
There are some inferior quality products that have in the past sullied the reputation of the meat. If the meat is processed badly it will be bruised which produces an undesirable texture and flavour. The industry has come a long way in the past few decades and there are some absolutely top quality products on the market now. As with beef and lamb, the breed, grading and treatment (processing, transport and packaging) of the animal has great influence on the quality of the product.
Of the 50-odd species of roo, four are targeted by the meat industry. Red kangaroo is highly sought after for its mild flavoured meat due to its open plain habitat and hence the pasture it grazes on. Then comes the slightly more gamey flavour of the hill dwelling Euro and finally the Eastern and Western Greys who ferret in scrublands and have an intense flavour which can be too gamey for some punters.
One local supplier is working towards a single area orientated, species specific, portion consistent product which will be a massive step forward for the industry putting it in line with the cattle/sheep industry where appellation, breed and farming method bring about a higher price and a more consistent quality product for the consumer; (think Richard Gunner's Coorong Angus Beef compared to just any old piece of beef).
From an environmental point of view both sides of the debate agree the effects of sheep and cattle grazing (soil erosion from their cloven hoofs, heavy grazing pressure and the subsequent vegetation and biodiversity loss) is a concern when compared with the environmental impact kangaroos create. Sheep and cattle also contribute to 11% of Australia's greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, although the number of kangaroos needed to be annually harvested to replace sheep and cattle to negate these effects may well greatly exceed the total population.*
No one can dispute that kangaroos are truly free range and live a better quality (and longer) life than a factory farmed animal.
The argument for the need to cull high populations as roos have no natural predators is countered by the suggestion based on modelling that Australia's drought cycle makes the populations "naturally fragile."
The real controversy and debate about roos centres around two main factors; the killing method of the animal and the fate of joeys, whether pouched or young at foot.
Glenys Oogjes - Executive Director Animals Australia puts, "A conservative estimate of the number of adult roos not humanely killed at over 100 000 per annum." The concerns are centred around the lack of regulators present during roo shoots which are carried out mainly at night and in remote areas and that, "Wounded kangaroos that are not shot in the head as legally required may often be abandoned as they will not be accepted at the processing plant."
Ray Borda - CEO Macro Meats Gourmet Game and President of the Kangaroo Industry Association of Australia points out there are random inspections and audits in the bush and furthermore all roos end up in his plant at the end of a shoot. It is illegal for a non-head shot and at the Macro plant every carcass is inspected. Like all other forms of livestock, if the animal is stressed the meat simply is not good so there is absolutely no incentive for a non- head shot, as Ray says," The meat tells the story."
The issue of joeys is paramount in Animals Australia's opposition to consumption of roo meat. Concerns around the killing method of pouched joeys (and there have been brutal examples here in the history of the industry) as well the fate of orphaned joeys who flee from hunters which are vulnerable to starvation, exposure or could become prey of dingos or foxes - numbers of which has been estimated in the vicinity 300 000 joeys per annum.
The policy and code of practice for kangaroo killing states that animals with pouch young should not be taken. The shooters point out that females are considerably smaller than the targeted size males which are around 40 kg or around 5 years old (incidentally a factory farmed "porker" has a similar weight but with a lifespan of only 4 months). If a female is large enough to be mistaken for a male they are quite possibly beyond their breeding cycle so the visual cues are easily identified. Around 90 % of roos shot in Australia are male and it is not in the industry's best interests to "shoot tomorrows profit."
Ray Borda points out that the industry is committed to best practice and is trialling a humane "captive bolt" for joeys, the method used to dispatch cattle in abattoirs. The trial is part of a larger project funded by the Rural Industries and Development Corporation after calls for research to objectively examine the humaneness of kangaroo harvesting and to determine where ongoing improvements can be made.
I suspect this debate will continue to be hotly contested for some time.
*University of Technology Sydney, the THINKK paper