The spectre of the Indonesian live export market closure and its financial impact on the northern cattle industry is providing a constant backdrop at an important research conference being held in Darwin yesterday and today.
The North Australian Beef Research Conference has drawn together about 300 cattle R&D stakeholders, including scientists, livestock producers and administrators. Animal welfare and handling have emerged as high priority R&D discussion topics.
The conference was coordinated through the North Australian Beef Research Council, chaired by Ralph Shannon.
Discussing live export industry issues, trends and challenges during yesterday’s program, MLA/Livecorp joint program R&D manager David Beatty played three video clips taken of slightly different methods of slaughter in Indonesia.
Mr Beatty has closely studied the International Animal Health (OIE) organisation’s minimum guidelines for animal welfare – particularly those around point of slaughter.
He asked the audience to assess which, if any, of the slaughter examples illustrated would rate as compliant with OIE minimum guidelines. While there were subtle variations evident within each, both in method and the restraining/stunning equipment used, there was no real consensus among the audience. Many thought all three would pass OIE scrutiny.
“The fact is there are grey areas in all of them,” Mr Beatty said.
“Within the one document, it states that animals are not allowed to fall or slip on non-slip flooring. However it also states that rope leg restraint and casting is acceptable, so it is arguing both ways,” he said.
OIE found it perfectly acceptable to slaughter animals with or without stunning.
“We have reached a point now in Indonesia where we are accepting OIE guidelines as a minimum standard, but there are no easy answers and there is a lot of ambiguity in the interpretation of the guidelines,” Mr Beatty said.
“A lot of it is to do with the fact that it is not actually the facility in which the animal is slaughtered that is the issue, but the practise, or how it is carried out,” he said.
Focussing on specific R&D projects in the live export area, he said the installation of restraining boxes had started as far back as 2000. Prior to that, traditional slaughter was practised, however it was quickly realised that Australian cattle, not used to being closely handled, were not suitable for this technique.
There were a range of issues and constraints around the Indonesian marketplace that challenged the restraining box program. Firstly, there was a very large number of abattoirs processing small numbers of cattle. Many had no power, or only an unreliable source. The equipment had to be very simple to operate, and the approaches to animal welfare were very different in developing countries than they were in Australia.
Mr Beatty said in 2003-04 the Mark I box was modified to try to better control the fall of the restrained animal, using a counterweight. This was only partially successful, because of animals of varying weights.
A Mark III design followed which incorporated a squeeze – the first R&D design that required an electrical power-source. The latest Mark IV version incorporates a simple head restraint, to keep the head down, overcoming some of the problems associated with throat cutting without stunning. It also includes both hydraulic and manual hand-pump, and the option for an electric motor to operate it if power was available.
At about this time all of the different available restraint designs and options were reviewed by an independent UK-based animal welfare export holding a PhD in point of slaughter animal welfare.
His report concluded that the Mark I, II and latest Mark IV designs all:
- improved animal handling in the pre-slaughter and during the slaughter process as it removed the need to incapacitate cattle in an attempt to restrain them effectively
- increased processing efficiency and improved safety
- When operated according to Standard Operating Procedures, the Mark IV restraining box satisfied all the requirements in the OIE guidelines, and
- Demonstrated a commitment to improving animal welfare standards in the export chain.
Mr Beatty said several points needed to be considered over future developments in the design of restraining boxes.
“The success of the restraint system is obviously dependent on the interaction between the slaughterman, the animal and the environment. Also, more sophisticated technology is less likely to be adopted, and if there is new technology introduced to the market, it will require the knowledge and support of the stockmen using it,” he said.
The overall acceptance of the restraining box might be reduced if it involved complicated installation, operation and maintenance processes.
“The reality is, if used incorrectly, the results are likely to be quite poor, but used correctly, results can be perfectly acceptable,” he said.
Senate hearing starts today
Also in Darwin today, the Senate Rural Affairs and Transport standing committee will hold its public hearing into the Indonesian live export crisis.
A wide range of industry stakeholders are scheduled to give evidence, including the Australian Live Export Council, MLA, Cattle Council of Australia, NT Government, beef producers and others involved in the supply chain including helicopter mustering and transport operators. Beef Central will be there to report on events.
Committee member, Independent Senator Nick Xenophon yesterday met with cattle producers in the NT today about the live export trade. He is pushing for legislation that would phase-out live exports within three years.
He says animal welfare should be top priority and would like to see all cattle slaughtered in Australia.
Senator Xenophon said he made the property visit because he “needed to be accountable for his ideas.”