Livestock Exporters Battle Animal Welfare Concerns


Published Dec 21, 2016 8:20 PM by The Maritime Executive

Australian livestock exporters are quietly optimistic about the coming 12 months, with the potential for diversification in global markets whilst maintaining Australia’s animal welfare standards. However, leading Australian animal welfare organization, the RSPCA, is not satisfied with industry or government’s achievements to date and decries further expansion of the trade.

New Markets

Australian Livestock Exporters’ Council (ALEC) chief executive officer Simon Westaway cited new opportunities in China and Saudi Arabia.

“With new supply chains for feeder-slaughter cattle in China gaining Exporter Supply Chain Assurance System (ESCAS) approval, we’re hopeful of that highly anticipated trade commencing in the near future, which is set to add significant value to our industry and provide extra marketing options for cattle producers,” he said.

ESCAS is an assurance system based on four principles:

•    Animal welfare: animal handling and slaughter in the importing country conforms to World Organisation for Animal Health animal welfare recommendations
•    Control through the supply chain: the exporter has control of all supply chain arrangements for livestock transport, management and slaughter. All livestock remain in the supply chain
•    Traceability through the supply chain: the exporter can trace all livestock through the supply chain
•    Independent audit: the supply chain in the importing country is independently audited.

“We’re very much focused on opportunities for the live sheep trade too, especially the prospect of re-opening the market in Saudi Arabia,” says Westaway. “We believe our existing Memorandum of Understanding with Saudi Arabia, or a slightly reformed version thereof, provides the best foundation on which these high priority efforts to re-open the market can be based. This also means that ESCAS will not be altered in any way.”

Westaway flagged items on the industry’s animal welfare agenda, including participation in a government-led review of the Australian Standards for the Export of Livestock and ongoing dialogue with Australian Government accredited veterinarians.

“These initiatives complement our industry’s ongoing investment in research, training and infrastructure in-market, highlighting our commitment to reducing animal welfare risks in overseas supply chains,” he said.

Cruelty in Vietnam

Westaway said animal welfare challenges in markets like Vietnam in the past 12 months had put the accountability in the live trade’s supply chain on show to all stakeholders. Welfare issues uncovered in Vietnam resulted in suspensions and bans being placed on a number of exporters. As a result of ongoing investigations into Vietnam, more than 20 facilities have already been suspended, including a number of feedlots and abattoirs, which Westaway said was a clear sign that the global-leading ESCAS was working effectively.

“Cruelty is simply not acceptable, which is why it is important Australian exporters continue our work in emerging markets like Vietnam, where our presence and ongoing levels of training and investment in the supply chain is helping to drive unprecedented improvements in livestock handling and slaughter practices,” Westaway said.

Ongoing Concerns

Animal welfare proponents have argued that the fact that so many ESCAS breaches occur is just ongoing proof that ESCAS, whilst an improvement, will never prevent suffering of Australian animals exported overseas. Animal welfare organization Animals Australia has noted non-compliance with ESCAS requirements for over 700 sheep exported to Oman as one example.  

Australia has been trading with Oman for nearly 50 years, raising the question: if the Australian export industry truly changed animal welfare in other countries, why is abuse so persistent in the Middle East when Australia has been exporting to the Middle East for over 40 years?

RSPCA Sees a Sham

The Australian Department of Agriculture’s latest quarterly report into the regulatory performance of ESCAS provides an insight into what the RSPCA calls the shambolic state of the Vietnamese market.

Fifteen of the 18 reports of non-compliance received during the six-month period from March to August this year concerned Vietnam and involved thousands of Australian cattle. Many of these animals were sold outside approved supply chains, and likely met the horrific fate of being bludgeoned to death with sledgehammers as exposed on the ABC’s 7.30 report in June this year, says the RSPCA.

“How many more strikes will it take before meaningful sanctions are imposed against exporters?” asks the RSPCA in a statement. “The continual accrual of critical non-compliances without prosecution or license suspension makes a mockery of the entire system.

As a live cattle export destination, Vietnam has grown from 3,353 cattle in 2012, to 311,523 in 2015, an expansion of almost 1,000 percent in just three years.

“Market expansion has clearly been prioritized at the expense of animal welfare. A key question to ask now is: how did the regulator allow this to occur?” said the RSPCA.

“Evidently, the Department of Agriculture has failed, not only with respect to applying adequate penalties, but in the way it rubber stamps supply chains. We would hope this experience would be a wake-up call to the industry, but as exporters push to re-open the Saudi market and expand into China and other developing South East Asian countries, it appears the lessons haven’t been learned, and animal welfare will yet again fall by the wayside.

“With a reluctant regulator and an industry hell-bent on market expansion, it is clear that a complete overhaul of the regulatory system is required if animal welfare is to receive the attention it deserves.”

The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.