“Vietnam cattle cruelty: Email leak suggests live export industry puts profits before animal welfare” said the headline.
More bad news for Australia’s live cattle export industry from ABC’s mainstream television news on the weekend.
But was it really?
The headline was a follow up to the ABC 7:30’s broadcast the previous night of exclusive footage from Animals Australia showing cattle, possibly Australian but with no hard evidence reported to confirm that, being subjected to brutal sledgehammering in a Vietnamese abattoir.
The follow up article focused on a reportedly leaked letter written to Australia livestock exporters on August 25 last year by Meat & Livestock Australia’s manager of livestock services in Vietnam, veterinarian Dr Michael Patching.
In the letter, published in full with the ABC article, Dr Patching recounts the results of a meeting he had recently held with Vietnamese importers following an animal welfare breakdown to discuss their issues with the Exporter Supply Chain Assurance System, and to find ways to improve their adherence to the animal welfare system.
Dr Patching tells exporters in the letter there was a clear message that “we (Australia’s livestock export industry) are not doing enough to accurately communicate with our clients (Vietnamese cattle importers)”.
The letter shows that work was being undertaken at an industry level to find solutions to prevent welfare breakdowns.
However, the ABC interpreted the document in a very different way, as the headline above indicates.
The negative headline seemed to draw on the ABC’s interpretation of one particular paragraph in the document.
In the final paragraph Dr Patching, states “If you put them (Vietnamese cattle importers) under pressure, they will find a solution that will beat the system (eg: tunnels in French and American Wars). We need to keep working with them to make their companies more profitable and less emphasis on compliance to regulations.”
The ABC report interpreted that paragraph as suggesting that Dr Patching is “appearing to urge exporters to put dollars before welfare”.
This same assertion is repeated later in the article by Animals Australia’s Lyn White, who describes the document as “damning”, and says it shows MLA is “encouraging profits over compliance in Vietnam”.
The article then quotes Australian Livestock Exporters’ Council chair Simon Crean, explaining that Dr Patching is stating that sometimes it is better to use a “carrot” approach rather than a “stick” approach.
It is well known that improved welfare practices go hand in hand with improved profitability – less stressed animals at slaughter means better meat yields, reduced dark cutting, improved shelf-life of product, more efficient handling, time savings, lower costs etc. This is also why it makes no commercial sense for exporters or importers to flagrantly disregard welfare standards, as groups like Animals Australia claim they routinely do.
If threatening importers with punishment for non-compliance is not working, then demonstrating that their businesses can become more profitable by adopting improved welfare standards is another way of achieving the same outcome.
It is understood Dr Patching was not contacted to clarify what he meant before the ABC ran its article with its own interpretation of what he meant – that he was urging exporters to put profits before welfare.
The article followed the ABC’s broadcast the previous night of footage showing cattle being subjected to cruel treatment in a Vietnamese abattoir, supplied by Animals Australia.
The report caused further damage to the public standing of the Australian livestock export industry.
It was possible the cattle involved were Australian, perhaps even probable: one man off-camera reportedly says in Vietnamese the cattle are from Australia and the cattle have “distinctive ear notches” and holes in their ears, which Animals Australia tells the program means they are likely to be Australian cattle.
But the program only reports that the cattle “appear to be Australian”, presumably because it has no definitive evidence to prove conclusively they are, and the formal, independent investigation by the Department into the veracity of the footage, and the circumstances it shows, has yet to be completed.
The ABC did have the option to delay broadcasting the footage, as there is no firm indication of when it was actually filmed and therefore it was not necessarily time-sensitive, until the outcome of the formal Departmental investigation was known.
But that would have also meant surrendering a “scoop” presented to it by Animals Australia to a rival television network.
In dangling the carrot of exclusive footage, Animals Australia has enjoyed great success in having the footage broadcast at a time likely to cause maximum potential damage to the livestock export industry.
The ABC report came in the middle of a Federal election campaign, and immediately after the five-year anniversary of the June 2011 export ban to Indonesia. After a week of positive stories (in the rural media at least!) showcasing the genuine advances in animal welfare that have been achieved by the livestock export industry since that time, the broadcast helped Animals Australia to return media coverage of the industry back to a negative focus.
If the Department of Agriculture investigation shows conclusively that indeed Australian animals were involved, then few would argue that the full force of sanctions must be brought down in response, given that all exporters supplying the market pledged to adopt tough new standards to stamp this out after a similar episode 12 months ago.
The issue with the ABC’s decision to press ahead with another Animals Australia-originated attack on the Australian livestock export industry, at a time of Animals Australia’s choosing and without waiting until the formal Departmental investigation was finished, is this: What if the investigation finds Australian cattle weren’t actually involved?
This has happened before, and when it has, there has been no attempt by the media outlets involved to explain after the fact that their previous negative story about Australia’s livestock export industry did not actually involve Australia’s livestock export industry.
Would it matter anyway? By that time the damage has been done. Public support for the industry – one that is relied upon by thousands of Australians for work, by millions of foreign consumers for affordable protein, and which has been documented to positively influence the adoption of improved welfare standards in the countries in which it operates – has been further undermined. Animals Australia’s objectives have been achieved.
There is no suggestion here that the bad stories should not be reported (at least when it is clearly proven that Australia’s industry has failed to meet its welfare responsibilities). But there is the suggestion that the good stories should be reported as well.
In 2014 an independent review of ESCAS, commissioned by the Federal Government, found that 99.9 percent of the 8 million livestock exported from Australia from 2012 to 2014 were handled appropriately through approved supply chains.
That is a good news story, and a major achievement, given the many challenges Australian exporters face to get their customers in other countries, where Australian law has no weight, and where very different cultural, social and religious norms often exist, to invest heavily in installing appropriate infrastructure and staff training so they can buy Australian animals. This success has also translated into improved welfare standards for many non-Australian livestock handled in the same facilities.
However that positive report was largely ignored by the mainstream media.
In fact one of the few mainstream media stories we saw on the ESCAS report at the time ran under this headline: “System fails to stem live export abuse”.
Rather than focus on the 99.9pc the trade got right, the article homed in on the 0.1pc it didn’t.
Industry leaders have said before they know the trade will be judged in the court of public opinion on what it gets wrong, not on what it gets right.
As the ESCAS report showed, it actually does get a lot right.
But the mainstream media’s reluctance to report positive news about the trade means very few Australians would know that.