Australia’s live export trade is likely to emerge from the recent animal welfare furore in not only a stronger position, but with more markets as well.
Last Thursday’s live export industry annual general meetings in Adelaide were addressed by senior Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry (DAFF) acting deputy secretary Paul Morris, who explained how new supply chain assurance systems will underpin the trade’s future sustainability.
Mr Morris’ department has faced the extraordinarily difficult task in recent months of trying to balance increasing public expectations over the treatment of Australian animals in export markets with the need to provide stability and certainty to a trade that is worth more than $1 billion a year to regional Australia’s economy.
It might have been an unfortunate way to demonstrate it, but the temporary ban imposed on exports to Indonesia and the rapid re-instatement that followed highlighted the Government's recognition of the trade's importance, Mr Morris told the audience.
“The Government is very supportive of the industry, it sees a sustainable live export industry as being important both for the industry itself but also for Australia more generally,” he said.
The scale of public reaction to the May 31 Four Corners program that showed Australian cattle being exposed to inhumane treatment in Indonesian abattoirs placed enormous pressure on the Government to close the trade, he said.
DAFF received more than 150,000 pieces of correspondence from the public as a result of the program, ranking it as the biggest single event the department had experienced in terms of public reaction.
“It was really a major driver in terms of the Government reaction,” Mr Morris said. “I’m glad we’re here today because there was a chance that we wouldn’t be here today, as a result of that sort of reaction.”
He praised industry groups such as Meat and Livestock Australia for the rapid turnaround in implementing supply chain assurance processes that supported a sustainable future for the trade and ensured community needs to towards humane treatment of animals were being met.
Since the first shipment returned to Indonesian on August 10, Australia had exported 110,000 of cattle back into Indonesia, thanks to the efforts of representatives from DAFF and industry groups like Meat and Livestock Australia to facilitate a rapid turnaround.
Progress since re-opening
DAFF has also received Notices of Intention to export for a further 127,000 cattle.
If that number is shipped between now and the end of the export season, it will take the total Australian cattle exporter to Indonesia for the year to 420,000 head.
While well short of the 500,000 head anticipated for Indonesia at the start of the year, a 420,000 head inventory still represented a solid turnaround compared to what could have been.
The new supply chain assurance framework tht will be implemented across all markets over the next 12 months was essential to prove to the Australian community that the industry is serious about animal welfare and also to convince trading countries that Australia is a reliable trading partner.
The Government was strongly supportive of stunning, however it could not push for mandatory stunning in overseas markets because it allows exemptions for unstunned slaughter in Australia on religious and cultural grounds.
Mr Morris also moved to correct a figure that has been circulating in parts of the media suggesting that around 90 percent of cattle going to Indonesia were going to facilities that use stunning. “That is not consistent with our figures and we’re not quite sure where that figure has come from. Our figures are more likely between 65 and 70pc … with about 30pc going through facilities where they’re probably not being stunned.”
In what may be seen by anti-live export campaigners as a perverse outcome of their efforts to close the trade, it appears that the substantial publicity sparked by the live export controversy and ensuing work to improve it has generated purchase interest from new markets.
Mr Morris said the department has received expressions of interest in importing Australian livestock from several countries including Lebanon, Iraq and Iran.
“It is interesting but the more news you get, whether it is good or bad news in the media, it seems to have drawn a lot of countries out of the woodwork who are interesting in starting a trade with Australia.”
Any new market would have to comply with new supply chain assurance standards from the outset, he said.
Will assistance for exporters be retrospective?
The Federal Government has made $5m available to help exporters fund the supply chain upgrades required to meet new assurance standards in all export markets over the next 12 months.
The funds will be distributed on a 3:1 ratio, which effectively amounts to a 25pc subsidy for supply chain improvements.
However, costs already incurred by exporters to bring Indonesian supply chains up to speed were unlikely to be eligible for subsidisation under the funding.
“Under the grant rules we can’t make it retrospective any earlier than the date of announcement, but we are looking at those arrangements at present,” Mr Morris said.
Grant programs were determined by Department of Finance regulations. DAFF officials were currently working with industry representatives to develop guidelines around how the $5m should be rolled out, about what should be eligible, and when it should be made available.
“Unfortunately some of those expenses that they have made in the past for Indonesia probably won’t be eligible as far as I can tell from the guidelines at the moment, but to the extent that we can possibly make as much eligible as we can, we will.”
While most attention on live exports has focused on cattle consigned for slaughter, one recommendation of the recent industry review by former Australian diplomat Bill Farmer was for the Government to develop more explicit regulations surrounding breeding animals.
As a result the Government was in the process of establishing a working group with industry to develop a sensible policy to ensure the humane treatment of breeder animals.
“The Farmer review raised some practical real-world issues in terms of whether Australia can reasonably be responsible for breeder animals for the lifetime of those animals, particularly because some are in-country for five years or more, and so obviously those sort of issues will need to be considered in terms of how we go forward,” Mr Morris said.
How reforms will support future of trade
Asked how the supply chain reforms will help to provide stability to the trade in future, Mr Morris offered the following response:
“The important thing about the new framework is that it gives the Government a whole lot of extra levers to pull if something goes wrong.
“At the moment the only lever we had to pull was to open or close a market and that was it.
“(With) a series of supply chains across a series of markets, if something goes wrong we have a lot more opportunity to give exporters the opportunity to address those problems within a supply chain, and we have the option of closing one supply chain but leaving all the others within the same market open.
“So in terms of flexibility the new arrangements provide a lot more flexibility then we have ever had in the past.”
- More photos, articles from the live export conference and AGM later today.