Issues Magazine

Live Export: A Cruel and Risky Industry

By Anastasia Smietanka

Incident after incident has shown that the live export trade cannot be regulated to ensure high animal welfare standards. Live exports should be banned.

As the “friend of industry”, the federal Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry (DAFF) regulates the live export trade. But it is also responsible for animal welfare.

Its conflict of interest is obvious. And it shows. The department makes no serious attempt to secure basic welfare.

Nor does industry. The trade is inherently cruel. And when the animals are disembarked dockside in a foreign market, Australian jurisdiction ceases.

Live exports should be banned.

When people think of live export, they think immediately of cattle and sheep sent overseas for slaughter for meat. But goats, deer, buffalo and camels are also exported live. And the trade doesn’t stop there. Its lasso also captures dairy cows, breeding animals and even greyhounds.

One little known example is that Australia is the largest exporter of greyhounds to the Chinese region of Macau. Yet in Macau there are no animal protection laws. The fact that this is the case in nearly every foreign market for any of our live animals has never troubled industry or the federal department of agriculture; not, that is, until public concern is exerted.

“A Bloody Business”, the ABC Four Corners exposé of the inhumane handling and slaughter of Australian live cattle in Indonesia, was aired on 30 May 2011. The program’s voiceover noted:

Animals smash their heads repeatedly on concrete as they struggle against ropes, take minutes to die in agony after repeated often clumsy cuts to the throat. In some cases there is abject and horrifying cruelty – kicking, hitting, eye-gouging and tail-breaking.

The footage was graphic and difficult to watch, and the public outcry was immediate and unsurprising. Some 250,000 Australians signed a petition within days to ban live animal exports.

While there is now popular opposition to the live export trade, the political power of agribusiness through, in particular, DAFF has ensured its continuance for now. Politicians worry about rural and regional seats, whose representatives also make their views known.

Yet the Four Corners program was preceded by a 30-year history of well-documented and ghastly animal welfare breaches: see the list dating back to 1980 on the RSPCA website (www.rspca.org.au). And as far back as 1985, the all-party Senate Select Committee on Animal Welfare concluded in a report on the live sheep trade that the trade should be phased out because reforms will not eliminate stress, suffering and risk during transport of sheep to the Middle East, and that if a decision were to be made on animal welfare grounds there was enough evidence to stop the trade. Its conclusions remain as relevant today.

The political cycle has thus now become this: well-based reports or compelling footage reveal serious animal welfare concerns. Industry and politicians scramble in damage control to assert that the incident is exceptional and that steps will be taken to better secure animal welfare outcomes. A memorandum of understanding (completely unenforceable) will be entered into with the importing country to better provide for welfare, or to ensure the animals are unloaded rather than left on the ship if an importing country refuses to accept them. An inquiry may even be established (there have been no less than five in recent years). Better regulation and new rules are promised. The Export Chain Supply Assurance System (ESCAS) executive orders are but the latest example of this piecemeal and reactive approach to welfare.

Trade may even be suspended in the face of a public outcry, as in the case of Indonesia in 2011; or in the case of Egypt in February 2006 after confronting footage was screened by 60 Minutes of shocking maltreatment of Australian cattle at Cairo’s notorious abattoir, Bassateen; or as in the case of Saudi Arabia in 1989 and again in 2003. Indeed, Saudi Arabia now refuses to trade with Australia while ESCAS subsists, pointing out that the attitude to animals and their welfare in all our foreign markets is not commensurate with our own.

What are the typical animal welfare breaches reported, apart from inhumane handling and slaughter in foreign markets? Death due to lack of onboard ventilation; death in feedlots from disease; poor accommodation and conditions onboard with serious illness, injury, and next to no veterinary care; and starvation of sheep that do not adjust to pellet feed.

The live export trade is inherently cruel. There are serious welfare concerns at every stage of the chain of export from the loading of unfit animals at the farm gate:

  • the often long transport to the feedlot
  • a change in diet that is not tolerated well
  • conditions and high stocking densities onboard the vessel and welfare issues arising from the sea journey, including the absence of any proper veterinary or other care
  • mortalities onboard ship
  • offloading, holding facilities and internal transportation within a foreign destination in often soaring temperatures
  • handling at the abattoir and the process of home or abattoir slaughter.

All these stages are accompanied at some point by one or other of stress, trauma, injury, disease, and premature or inhumane death.

Industry seeks to cloak the large number of journey mortalities by describing them in percentage terms. But the small overall percentage translates into large numbers – namely, some 40,000 cattle, sheep and goats that fail each year to reach foreign soil, according to RSPCA (December 2009). If they were horses or dogs there would be a public outcry.

Once our animals have disembarked on foreign soil, Australian power and jurisdiction cease. The consequence for animals was pointed out graphically by the recent brutal slaughter of some 21,000 Australian sheep in Pakistan, where many were buried alive: all was depicted on the Four Corners broadcast “Another Bloody Business”, screened on 5 November 2012. In that program, the Deputy Secretary of DAFF candidly answered, when asked whether there could be a similar incident in the future if Australia continued to trade with Pakistan: “We could have a similar incident in any of our markets” [emphasis added].

In the Barristers Animal Welfare Panel’s view, this goes to the heart of the difficulty in securing humane outcomes in foreign markets where no Australian jurisdiction exists and where the attitude to animals is so different.

As to the prior long journey by sea, veterinarian Dy Lynn Simpson in a submission to the federal Department of Agriculture in March 2013 claimed that live exports are “being done primarily to commercial advantage and not in general prioritising the well-being and health of the animals loaded onto vessels”. Dr Simpson had travelled on 57 “long and extra long haul voyages”. Her submission, replete with photos, is at http://www.daff.gov.au/__data/assets/pdf_file/0008/2253077/aav6.pdf

In the face of such animal welfare concerns, industry is heard to complain about the cost of welfare measures. Take, for example, the comments of the President of the Northern Territory Cattleman’s Association, David Warriner: “I have heard [ESCAS] is now over $100 per head [per animal] and needs to be closer to $20 per head” (ABC News).

The first serious calls to ban the trade came in the 1980s. Thirty years later we have ESCAS, but only by reason of a public outcry and not industry concern. Yet already there is evidence of breaches. Undoubtedly there will be more. These are not detected by ESCAS auditors that under the ESCAS rules can be paid by the live exporters. It is animal societies like Animals Australia or journalists that expose the breaches.

The ABC’s 7.30 program on 12 December 2012 exposed the ESCAS audit system for the cosmetic auditing process it is. The program showed how a recent exporter-paid audit of Israel’s Bakar Tnova abattoir recorded just a “rusty gate causing excessive noise”. Footage taken only two months later by an Israeli undercover journalist depicted handling and slaughter practices where cattle were hoisted before loss of consciousness; electric prodder abuses to the eyes, face, anus and genitalia of disabled and distressed cattle; and the use of a restraint box to fully invert cattle for Kosher slaughter.

On the program, DAFF described the exporter-paid audit as only an “initial” audit. It later emerged that the particular consignment of cattle pre-dated the commencement of the ESCAS rules from 1 September last year.

Yet under ESCAS such “initial” audits are required to secure ESCAS approval for an export consignment. And subsequent “performance” audits are only conducted after the animals’ processing/slaughter. This is self-evidently too late.

The “initial” audit is the key to export, and the Israeli example brings into question the objectivity, reliability and rigour of the audit process. The Panel, in a letter in December last year to all federal government MPs, said just that.

For the trade there is the risk that importing countries will try to become self-sufficient. For example, in 2011 Indonesia announced that it would be phasing out the import of cattle from Australia as it wished to create a local industry. Further, Indonesia has complained for some years that Australian cattle are too large. This was ignored by northern Australian producers.

There is also arguably scope to increase the chilled market. One example is Egypt in 2007. The RSPCA reports that when live exports to Egypt were banned, the sale of chilled meat increased in Egypt.

The industry has been shameful for decades. In a submission to the Senate Committee of Inquiry into live export in 2011, Jennifer Macdougall, a cattle producer and a member of Meat and Livestock Australia, called for an end to the trade, contending “ there is systemic abuse of animals in all our importing countries, and our animals fall victim to that abuse”.

Live exports must be banned. New Zealand banned live exports in 2007 and has moved its meat processing onshore for chilled meat. They have survived. We will too.