Agriculture Minister Damien O'Connor says he's concerned conditions on live animal export ships might not be up to the standard he's been told.
But he said he sees value in the contentious export trade with New Zealand farmers being paid almost double the amount dairy cows would earn in New Zealand.
"I'm using this opportunity to double check on (conditions)," he said in response to Herald questions on his attitude to live animal exports after the loss of an animal carrier with 43 people and more than 5800 New Zealand dairy cattle aboard in a storm.
The Gulf Livestock 1 was en route from Napier, where it loaded the cattle, to China when it sunk in a typhoon in the East China Sea. Japanese authorities are still searching for 40 missing crew, including two New Zealanders.
New Zealand has suspended live exports in the meantime.
O'Connor, who had refused media interviews immediately after the event, said it was not possible to release before the election a Ministry for Primary Industries review of the trade started 18 months ago.
The review had been delayed by Covid-19.
"It's project that's been interrupted and it's getting difficult to bring the review and its recommendations back to Cabinet and have it processed.
"I'm not wanting to hide anything. The review has been comprehensive however some learnings from this latest tragedy must be incorporated into any recommendations I bring to Cabinet."
Asked what his recommendation to Cabinet on the trade would be if he was still agriculture minister after the election, he said he saw value in it but had concerns.
"I see value in the export trade of being able to shift high quality animals into value markets where they appreciate these animals. It is enabling animal protein production to be more efficient if we can supply animals that produce 10 times the milk a day than animals they are currently using. That is good for everyone.
"But I am concerned the conditions on boats might not be up to the standard I've been told. I'm using this opportunity to double check on that."
However, Wayne Doran, an independent contractor with South Australasian International Livestock Services, said the issue was being misconstrued from a maritime disaster into an animal welfare issue.
"Much has been said about the failure of the voyage, not much has been said about the fact that all of the welfare conditions have been met," he said while talking to The Leighton Smith Podcast this morning.
"They [Australia] don't see this as an animal welfare issue whatsoever, they see it as a maritime disaster and live exporting is continuing business as usual over there."
Doran said there were four ships with cattle in quarantine ready and waiting to head to China at a total cost of $12 million that farmers could lose out on.
"My sympathies are entirely with the farmers," Doran said.
"There are going to be some farmers that are seriously affected."
O'Connor said he'd sought assurance "time and time again" from officials that the best standards were in place for animals during travel.
He said livestock exports provided cashflow to farmers and the ability to relieve pressure on farm when feed was short.
"It's one more option for farmers which I think they do appreciate but total animal exports - and people are concerned about all of them, not just cattle - we must do right and maintain high standards of animal welfare and care."
MPI's latest export outlook report said the value of live animal exports was expected to increase by 30 per cent in the year to June this year to $310 million. This was mainly due to China demand for cattle.
More than 27,000 cattle were exported from New Zealand in the six months to December.
Export volumes were expected to stay at these levels for the next few years because China could not source enough breeding cows from Australia due to ongoing drought, the report said.
O'Connor said in 2015, 80,000 animals were exported live.
"It's not going to get to that level (again) but certainly close to 70,000 are planned, and the values paid to farmers for the animals have been exceptional - almost double the commercial value of them in New Zealand."
Critics of the trade suggest it hurts New Zealand's brand overseas.
O'Connor said he wasn't aware of specific complaints from trading partners and customers offshore.
"But I think every farmer and every producer in New Zealand wants to maintain a reputation of good environmental practice, good animal welfare practice and good labour practice.
"It just takes one to undermine our reputation, so we have to be mindful of that with every shipment."