A livestock carrier owned by a Saudi businessman is on its way to New Zealand to collect more than 5000 dairy cows and take them to China.

The Awassi Express is owned by Sheikh Hmood Ali Al Khalaf, who was at the centre of the long-running controversy over the export of 900 pregnant ewes to his Saudi Arabian farm two years ago.

Nearly all the lambs born after they arrived died in the desert.

The Ministry for Primary Industries has confirmed it has received an export application for 5300 dairy cows to be shipped to China and the Awassi Express is due in Napier in a few days, RNZ reports.


Labour's primary industries spokesman, Damien O'Connor, wants an assurance that the cows will be safe and well-treated on the trip.

"We need to know that there's not some kind of deal done that leaves the animals at risk," he said.

Animal rights activist Hans Kriek, director of SAFE, says the voyage will be tough on the cows and there's no guarantee they will be treated humanely in China.

"These animals will be slaughtered at the end of their productive life - and we don't even know how long that is," he said.

"They will be slaughtered, for instance, without stunning as is required in New Zealand.

The ministry says exporters have to meet rigorous standards around water, food, space, stockmen and veterinarians before export permits are issued. - NZN