By Boyd Champness

A CALL from US farmers for a 30-50% tariff on lamb imports has left Australian farmers praying the American Government doesnt heed to their demands.

Such high tariffs would spell disaster for Australian lamb producers given the US is their largest and most lucrative market, worth A$100 million (£39.5m) a year.

But most analysts and industry leaders do not expect the US bid to be successful, according to a report in The Weekly Times.

The American Sheep Industry Association has lobbied for a tariff-quota system for the past four years. Last month, the association took its concerns to the US International Trade Commission (ITC) in Washington, with the commission agreeing that imports were threatening the domestic industry.

Last week, the commission invited the association to table its tariff proposals.

Under those proposals, imports of up to 18,000 tonnes would be hit with a 30% tariff and imports above that level would face a 50% tariff.

The bid has shocked the Australian industry, particularly the quota level of 18,000 tonnes, which equates to total US imports in 1995.

Last year, Australia alone exported 17,211t of lamb to the USA. This represented a 30% increase on 1997 levels.

At last weeks hearing, Australian and New Zealand ambassadors Andrew Peacock and Jim Bolger both spoke against the tariff regime.

According to the paper, Mr Peacock told the commission import restrictions “would send an appalling signal” at a time when many countries were already tempted to block imports of domestically sensitive goods.

The ITC is expected to make a recommendation to President Clinton next month.

But Jim Martin, president of the Sheepmeat Council of Australia, said he believed the Americans had little chance of gaining support at the highest level. “It would fly in the face of the free-trade policies their President is espousing,” he said.

Australia and New Zealands case was bolstered by a report by Price Waterhouse Coopers, commissioned by the American Sheep Industry Association, that said flagging consumer demand was the main problem for the US domestic industry.