Are the new live export regulations effective in protecting the welfare of live sheep and cattle?

For this section of farm institute insights, ‘in my view’, the Institute will invite comments on a particular topic from two politicians with differing policy viewpoints. In this August edition of farm institute insights, Kelvin Thomson MP and Senator Chris Back question the effectiveness of new live export regulations.

Mr Kelvin Thomson MP

Member for Wills, Victoria, Australian Labor Party

It is my view that the present regulations fall short of ensuring animal welfare is guaranteed in the live export trade. This was demonstrated by the revelation in May of 37 breaches of animal welfare export standards by two exporters.

The 37 breaches raise the question of whether the framework of self-regulation is working. The Department of Agriculture Deputy Secretary said if further animal welfare breaches occur the exporters would face the possible loss of their export licence, but you have to wonder how many chances they get. When the trade was resumed last year after being suspended, the government said the industry was on notice, so I think the public would expect that any exporters now found to be treating animals inhumanely would have their export licenses revoked. In my view 37 breaches is way too many and the two exporters should have their licences suspended or even cancelled.

Even more worrying for me than the question of penalty is the fact that it wasn’t industry self-regulation that brought these breaches to light, it was Animals Australia. Are we really seeing only the tip of the iceberg?

The current Exporter Supply Chain Assurance system (ESCAS) allows for audit companies to be selected and paid for by exporters. Not unlike the current shipboard veterinary-placement system, this system may exert undue pressure on those contracted to provide the desired reports, rather than an independent and thus reliable audit. He who pays the piper calls the tune.

The independence of the audit regime is not the only issue of concern. There are no required spot checks or unannounced audits of facilities. Audit requirements necessitate only a very small number of vehicles to be observed during a discharge audit (eg just two trucks checked, or handling observed for 50 animals); or small numbers of animals to be observed slaughtered during an abattoir audit (eg just 10 animals or 20% of daily kill, whichever is the lesser).

When ‘feeder’ animals (animals that go straight to the feedlot rather than straight to the abattoir) are involved, such as in Indonesia, a facility can operate for months without an audit – ie after an initial audit of facilities, a performance audit for that consignment isn’t required for up to 190 days. Over such a period workers may have been replaced, training forgotten, or equipment broken or stolen and thus practices may have deteriorated.

ESCAS standards are inadequate because they do not require pre-slaughter stunning of exported animals.

In addition to Australia’s export of animals for slaughter we also send breeding animals all over the world to assist other countries to build up their herds. We know that these animals inevitably end up in the same abattoirs as animals exported for slaughter, however they are not covered by the ESCAS.

So far we have had three investigations into breaches of the ESCAS in Indonesia – one from a self report and two from Animals Australia. Any system that relies on the conscientious actions of organisations like Animals Australia and the World Society for the Protection of Animals to detect and report breaches will inevitably run into trouble.

When the animals are offloaded at a foreign destination port they are in a completely different jurisdiction – one where Australia has no authority. Australian visibility of what goes on is very much reduced, with obvious potential for under reporting of animal welfare breaches. Our key control is whether to send the animals or not.

Long distance transport is cruel. Many sheep die from starvation, and suffer from the cramped conditions, humidity and heat, ship movement, and the cumulative effects of stress.

The live export trade is not only a failure of ethics but a failure of economics. We should move towards a viable alternative – a local chilled meat export industry that protects and creates more Australian rural jobs, results in higher profitability through value added opportunities and addresses the public’s welfare concerns.

In 2011, the Australasian Meat Industry Employees Union (AMIEU), estimated that some 3500 direct employment meat processing jobs have been lost because of the Australian live animal trade. An ACIL Tasman report (2011) on Australia’s live animal exports estimated that the establishment of a meat processing facility in northern Australia could create up to 1300 new jobs in the region.

I think the only way we are going to ensure our animals are not being mistreated is to insist on mandatory stunning – that all animals are stunned before being killed. I further think we should be supporting proposals for the establishment of abattoirs in northern Australia, such as the Australian Agricultural Company proposal for Livingstone Valley south of Darwin, and transitioning away from live exports and into domestic processing, which is better for both animal welfare and for Australian jobs.

In 1988, Kelvin Thomson MP was elected to the Victorian Parliament as the Member for Pascoe Vale and was re-elected in 1992. In 1996, he was elected to the Federal Parliament as the Member for Wills. From 1998 to 2007 he served in a range of Shadow Ministries, including Assistant Treasurer, Environment and Heritage, Regional Development, Roads and Housing, Public Accountability, Human Services and Attorney General.In 2007, he was appointed to Chair the Joint Standing Committee on Treaties.

Are the new live export regulations effective in protecting the welfare of live sheep and cattle?


Senator Chris Back

Senator for Western Australia, Liberal Party of Australia

Some elements of the new regulations controlling the export of live cattle and sheep from Australia are to be commended. They will assist our exporters to ensure purchasers and processors in our target market countries take the necessary steps to deliver on Australia’s animal welfare standards. The regulations, introduced early in 2012, are referred to as ESCAS: the Exporter Supply Chain Assurance system.

There are some realities which need to be clearly understood but are usually overlooked in the focus on the live export trade. ESCAS is in this mix. Firstly, few credit Australia as the only exporting country in the world to have invested expertise and money over many decades to improve animal husbandry, health and welfare in our overseas target markets. We are the only one of 109 exporting nations to do this.

Standards have increased immeasurably over the years as a direct result. Does more need to be done? Obviously. If Australia is caused to exit the live export trade in sheep and cattle to the Middle East and Asian regions, what will be the inevitable outcome for animal welfare standards in these countries? I have never heard an animal activist acknowledge this fact. Do we think that concern for animal welfare standards stop at Australia’s borders?

I remain concerned that the ESCAS process has imposed the entire regulatory burden for live animal exports on one group, being the exporters. Shared Ministerial and Departmental responsibility seems to have been avoided. Australia is the only exporting country which requires industry, under threat of criminal liability, to guarantee the behaviour and performance of every player in the supply chain, including those in overseas jurisdictions.

Our government must play its important role in diplomacy and bureaucracy to preserve our market share and achieve our goals of the highest standards in animal health and welfare in the target countries.

Australia is not the only supplier of live animals to importing countries. Since the debacle of last year’s suspension of the live cattle trade to Indonesia, we know that country is actively seeking alternative supplies of beef and possibly live cattle from India and Brazil. You can’t blame them.

Foot and mouth disease (FMD) is endemic in cattle and buffalo herds in India. Many regions of Brazil also have FMD. If this catastrophic disease returns to Indonesia’s cattle herds, it is only a matter of time before it will reach Australia’s northern borders. The direct cost to the Australian economy of a FMD outbreak is estimated at A$12 billion in the first year alone. The impact on every aspect of the economy across northern Australia would be diabolic.

The imposition of ECSAS on our Middle East customers in February this year has caused a negative reaction from several governments in the region. Kuwait, which has trusted the supply of Australian stock for almost 30 years, is now looking actively for alternative supplies in Georgia, North and South Africa and South America. Turkey is accepting supply of cattle from Mexico in increasing numbers, despite being very satisfied with the quality of Australian cattle.

Let me dispel another myth. We cannot simply replace live animal exports with beef or sheep meat to these markets. In the case of the Middle East, the two complement each other. We lose one, we lose both and importantly we lose the capacity to influence behaviours in these countries to continually improve welfare standards.

People in the higher socioeconomic strata buy our chilled meats and fat-tailed sheep produced from their own region. The majority, including those in lower socioeconomic communities, depend on freshly killed meat from ‘wet markets’ due to their lack of refrigeration and religious preference. Chilled or frozen meat is not an option for them. If Australia will not supply, plenty of others will.

In Indonesia, cattle bred on northern Australian pastoral properties and fattened in local feedlots provide the much-needed beef protein to some 68 million low, socioeconomic Indonesian people. Little wonder the Indonesians reacted with such amazement and anger when our Minister for Agriculture cut off supply without as much as a word of negotiation or consultation. Indonesia won’t be self-sufficient in its demand for beef or any other form of animal protein any time soon. We need to rebuild the confidence of an important trading neighbour without delay.

A final word on ESCAS. No-one can confirm to me, anywhere in the world, where another exporter of a product or commodity is held criminally liable for the performance of every person in a supply chain right through to the final consumer.

Why Australia and why the live animal export trade? Imagine if our Tasmanian poppy producers were held criminally liable if their product was high-jacked and used for heroin production rather than medicines? Or if a Swedish wind turbine manufacturer faced the threat of criminal charges if their product was proved to cause severe health effects on consumers in another country?

In 2009, Dr Chris Back was sworn in as a Liberal Senator for Western Australia. He is the only veterinarian currently serving in Federal Parliament and has been a consultant veterinarian in the live export trade. He is deputy opposition whip in the Senate, and an active member of the Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport Committee.

In corporate life, Senator Back was a consultant in the agribusiness arena, and a chief executive officer in various sectors including tourism, emergency services, IT, the fuel industry, energy and resources.

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