BRISBANE, Australia—No visit Down Under is complete without some sort of an update on kangaroos.

Even during a short week of travel here in the country’s northern state of Queensland, the country’s iconic marsupial is the subject of scrutiny. Kangaroos, of course, are both a subject of cultural curiosity and a target for semipro hunters and otherwise well-intentioned motorists. Hardly an endangered species, the typical pick-up truck, SUV or even family sedan whose owner does even a modest amount of driving across the state’s more remote highways will have the vehicle outfitted with “roo bars,” a heavy-duty steel cage designed to lessen the damage when the inevitable kangaroo-car collisions occur.

It’s not atypical, in fact, during certain dry seasons, when ’roos exit the bush to feed on the grass alongside the roads, to hit as many as half a dozen animals in a trip of only 100 kilometers or so—and that’s the total for conscientious drivers who are actually trying to avoid striking the animals.

Like deer in many rural areas across the Midwest, an absence of predators and the expansion of agriculture have combined to produce a mini-population boom—which has created an informal network of hunter-gatherers who spend their nights “harvesting” kangaroos in the bush, then dropping off the carcasses at remote cold-storage stations prior to final processing at a number of smaller meat processing plants.

Kangaroo meat—roasts and burgers, mostly—can be purchased in many (but not all) mainstream supermarkets, but much of the meat is destined for export, and that’s where trouble has developed.

The survivability question

Voiceless, an animal rights groups that calls itself the country’s “passionate animal advocates,” has tried mightily to gin up outrage over what they claim is “the largest commercial slaughter of land-based animals on the planet.”

In other words, the millions of kangaroos and wallabies hunted across Australia’s vast interior over the last 20 years.

But it’s not purely for sport. According to government statistics, kangaroos represent a multi-million dollar industry, considering the value of both the meat and the hides. Although that activity supports literally thousands of rural residents in economically depressed areas, Voiceless emphasizes that they view the activity as being built “on the suffering of our country’s most beloved native animal.”

That’s not the official view, of course. In 2012 the Australian government allowed up to 5.2 million kangaroos and wallabies to be commercially hunted, as scientific surveys indicate that even that large of a harvest doesn’t affect the species’ survivability.

The animal rights community opposes any hunting, commercial or otherwise, and Voiceless points out that along with the sanctioned harvest, kangaroos are also killed by recreational hunters and by farmers as “damage mitigation.”

Ag trade groups estimate the annual cost of kangaroo-caused crop damage at more than $200 million a year. But according to a 2011 report by THINKK, which is described as “a think tank for kangaroos,” (yes, there’s a think tank for kangaroos), the cost to farmers should be downgraded to only $44 million annually.

Whether the damage totals are exaggerated or not—most experts say “not”—the harvest of kangaroos has also been impacted by another ongoing issue: A Russian ban on exports.

In August 2009, Russian government officials cited unacceptable levels of bacterial contamination and imposed a temporary ban on Australian kangaroo meat imports to Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan. In December 2012, political pressure and government lobbying persuaded Russia to lift the ban. Specifically, Adelaide-based processor Macro Meat in South Australia was been given permission to resume exports by the Russian quarantine authority.

Last week, Voiceless fed the media reports that the Russian government had reinstated the kangaroo meat ban after discovering unauthorized shipments and seizing an 18-ton shipment. The group quoted state-owned news agency RIA Novosti as reporting that Russia’s agricultural agency Rosselkhoznadzor had banned kangaroo meat imports after a shipment from an unpermitted supplier was uncovered.

Macro Meats managing director Ray Borda rejected the claim, stating that there was no “ban.”

“It’s the way they speak over there, and the type of language they use,” he told The Australian newspaper. “The Russians are asking us to explain what happened,” adding that Macro Meat had not been officially notified by Australia’s Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry that a ban was in place.

Borda said his company acted quickly once it became aware of the shipping problem three weeks ago and said there was nothing sinister in what happened.

“We use a large third-party cold-storage container loader, and in a shipment of 744 cartons, they mistakenly put in 19 cartons that shouldn’t have been there,” he said. “It’s not a sanitary issue; it [was] kangaroo from another plant. There was nothing deceiving about it; the country it was meant for was written on the side [of the container].”

Borda described the mix-up as human error and said that steps were already being taken to ensure it didn’t happen again, such as color-coding boxes, having a Macro Meats staff member on hand at the loading point and adding barcodes each carton.

“We’ve have had 20-odd containers go in [to Russia], with no problems to date,” he said, “and more since this incident happened,” he said. “It’s a serious matter, but we’ve already got the remedy.”

Even if—more likely, when—the Russian dispute is resolved, the battle over kangaroo harvesting will continue. It’s unique to Australia, but typical of the positioning animal rights activists assume everywhere: Regardless of the economics, irrespective of the wildlife management issues and unrelated to larger issues of rural sustainability, the quest to convince urban consumers that all consumption of animal foods is wrong will continue.

It’s a struggle seemingly as old as hunting itself, and even in this decidedly more meat eater-friendly country, one that won’t be concluded anytime soon.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Dan Murphy, a veteran food-industry journalist and commentator.