Security was tight at the World Meat Congress (WMC) in Brisbane, Australia, as animal rights activists and vegan groups attempted to disrupt the event of 600 delegates. Protesters chanting "meat is murder," openly taunted delegates -- some of whom tried initially to out-shout the protesters but were backed off by police. Security guards arrested one woman after she breached Convention Centre security in an attempt to disrupt opening remarks by Queensland Premier Peter Beattie.

The WMC is held every two years as a function of the International Meat Secretariat. It hosts a gathering of the world's most influential ag policy makers and meat industry experts to analyze the current state of the international meat market from a global perspective.

Addressing the issue of increasing animal rights protests around the world, David Bayvel, president of the Animal Welfare Working Group for the World Organization for Animal Health, says that, while consumers express interest in humanely-produced products, the reality is another matter.

"There's an unfortunate reality of what's referred to as the fickle consumer," he says. "You carry out surveys and 50-60% say they'll pay quite happily for improved animal welfare. Unfortunately their buying behavior is quite different."

He says surveys show, when faced with choice in the supermarket and getting out their credit card at the check-out counter, "that 50-60% falls to 5-6%."

The WMC traveled to Australia as the country is experiencing unprecedented growth and prosperity in the cattle and beef industry -- spurred by both increasing domestic beef demand and increased exports. Cattle numbers are expected to grow by nearly 3 million head in the next four years and the value of exports has risen by $870 million since 2003.

The Australian beef export markets have been enhanced though aggressive application of Australia's nationwide "transaction levy," which was increased this year from $3.50 (AUD) to $5/head ($3.83 USD) each time an animal is sold. Most Australian producers say the increased checkoff comes at a time when, due to absence of the U.S. in Asian beef markets, Aussie beef producers are targeting exports to Japan and Korea.

Lars Hoelgaard, the European Union (EU) deputy-director general of agriculture, expects tariffs for imports of Australian produce going to Europe to come down. He says concrete proposals to liberalize trade with the rest of the world have been made in the latest World Trade Organization negotiations.

Hoelgaard says that with this trade liberalization come reductions in trade-distorting domestic support. In remarks before the WMC, he blasted U.S. farm programs he says subsidize American beef production to the detriment of farmers around the world.

Hoelgaard expects more Australian meat to be sold in Europe, either through a widening of the import existing caps or outside the caps with tariffs being paid.

In remarks pointed as much at the U.S. beef industry as the Aussies, Hoelgaard says any future exports to the EU will have to at least meet existing production rules. This includes a ban on hormonal growth promotants, which he says consumers in Europe "accept" as detrimental to their health. -- Clint Peck