Just 21 licensed livestock exporters have been responsible for exporting more than 8 million Australian cattle, sheep, buffalo and goats in the three years since the Export Supply Chain System was introduced in 2011.
And of that number, only five were responsible for more than 80pc of all exported cattle and 95pc of all exported sheep.
The live export trade generates more than $1 billion in export income each year, is directly relied upon by large sections of Australian agriculture in northern and southern Australia, employs around 10,000 people and has significant flow on effects for other livestock markets in Australia.
It takes just one of those 21 exporters to “do the wrong thing” and fail to ensure that animals under their responsibility are treated well, particularly in today’s environment of unprecedented scrutiny, for the trade’s already tenuous hold on public support to be put at further serious risk.
A comprehensive review released earlier this week by the Federal Government shows that the mandatory Exporter Supply Chain Assurance System introduced to improve welfare standards for exported Australian livestock in 2011 is working, and that exporters have invested heavily to meet their responsibilities under the system.
ESCAS requires the continuous traceability of all exported Australian livestock through to the point of slaughter, backed by a requirement for continuous compliance reporting by importers and exporters back to the Department of Agriculture.
It also requires that animals only be handled and slaughtered in abattoirs that have been independently audited and approved by the Australian Government, and where staff have been trained in welfare-based handling techniques.
The mandatory traceability and reporting requirements provide an unprecedented means for tracking and reporting levels of welfare compliance in the livestock export industry.
The report released this week shows that 99.8pc of the more than 8,000,000 Australian cattle, sheep, goats and buffalo exported since ESCAS was introduced in late 2011 were exported successfully and without report of welfare incident.
It also confirms that Australia is exporting improved animal welfare standards to the world, with more than 7000 stock handlers now trained in welfare handling techniques in destination markets, with importing Governments also reporting improved welfare outcomes for non-Australian animals in their countries as a result of ESCAS.
However, the system has still had its clear failures.
Some 12,958 cattle, sheep and goats in 22 separate consignments were exposed to either proven or potentially adverse welfare situations, according to the review.
No system can be 100 percent infallible, but the livestock export industry will always be judged by what it does wrong, not by what it does right.
Sure enough, this week’s report that more than 8,000,000 livestock have been successfully exported without incident since ESCAS was introduced in 2011 has barely registered a headline in the mainstream media.
Newspapers and current affairs programs that routinely run articles highlighting evidence of live export cruelty produced by animal activists have all but ignored this week’s positive report about the live export trade, judging by a search of mainstream news websites.
However, the point remains that exporters carry an enormous amount of responsibility and any shortfall in their approach to welfare can have serious ramifications for not just their own business, but the entire industry in which they operate.
It is clear the Australia public will not tolerate poor animal welfare outcomes, and neither will – or should – Australian livestock producers.
The report notes that some exporters have failed to assist with DoA ESCAS investigations in a timely manner.
In response to their actions the Government report suggests introducing a new system of financial penalties or sanctions as an added deterrent.
For more than a year there have been growing calls at a producer level for penalties for live exporters who are found to be repeat ESCAS offenders to be strengthened.
Current penalties range from the application of additional conditions on an exporter’s license and suspension/removal of problematic supply chains to the suspension or cancellation of a non-compliant exporter’s license.
The report says that while possible license cancellation is an important feature of ESCAS, there may be benefit in investigating the feasibility of supporting ESCAS with a system of financial or other sanctions (such as enforceable undertakings):
Amongst other things, a system of financial or other sanctions may be a more effective regulatory tool than existing administrative or criminal sanctions, or could provide a useful adjunct to the current criminal remedies available under the Export Control Act 1982. For example, there are instances where exporters have not provided information in a timely manner to assist in the completion of an investigation. Being able to fine exporters for this type of behaviour would provide an incentive for exporters to comply with regulatory requirements.
The report adds that to date, there have been no criminal prosecutions taken under ESCAS, which it blames in part on the significant complexities in pursuing criminal actions against an Australian party for breaches of welfare standards on foreign soil.
Importantly, the report also notes that a breach of ESCAS also does not necessarily equate to a poor animal welfare outcome. Most of the reported ESCAS breaches identified in the report were for the movement or animals outside of approved supply chains or for technical, paperwork related breaches.
In some cases allegations had also been made (but which were impossible to prove) that animal welfare incidents may have been “fabricated”:
For example, it has been alleged that threats of non-compliance have been used by a buyer to leverage more favourable terms from an exporter.
And sometimes exporters had to breach ESCAS to ensure a better welfare outcome was achieved:
Natural disasters, rioting, intervention by importing country authorities, armed robberies or other extenuating circumstances can affect an exporter’s ability to comply with ESCAS. In some cases, exporters have not complied with the approved ESCAS in order to maintain animal welfare. For example, when the only feedlot in an approved supply chain could not be accessed an exporter temporarily unloaded livestock at a feedlot that was not part of the approved supply chain, rather than leave them on trucks for extended periods. Had the exporter adhered strictly to ESCAS, the animal welfare outcomes ESCAS was set up to achieve would not have been met. Administration of ESCAS must be flexible and focus on outcomes as well as procedure.
The report finds that on the whole exporters are indeed “doing the right thing” and that the welfare assurance system is working.
It also adds that exporters have become increasingly proactive in reporting non-compliance and taking action immediately to fix the causes and prevent future problems.
But that poor animal welfare outcomes continue to occur, even if small in number, remains a significant problem for the trade, and for the broader community that replies upon it.
In late 2013 then RSPCA president Lynne Bradshaw told a live export industry conference in Townsville that livestock exporters should do themselves and their industry a favour by turfing out the “black sheep” from their industry.
The public was “really barely tolerating live export”, she said at the time, and further negative headlines only served to drag down the high calibre exporters who were investing heavily in improved welfare.
Several of the non-compliance breaches listed in this week’s report occurred in the past year since she gave that advice.
So, ‘99.8 of the animals exported without report of animal welfare incident’. We know that how? Because the ‘independent auditors’ employed and paid by the exporters say so, and because Animals Australia cannot be everywhere. I can’t tell you how reassured I feel abut that. Even industry stooge Philip Glyde said to a captive audience of pro-live export sycophants words to the effect of ‘ we don’t know what we don’t know’ – and that says it all.
“… 99.8pc of the more than 8,000,000 Australian cattle, sheep, goats and buffalo exported since ESCAS was introduced in late 2011 were exported successfully without report of welfare incident.”
How this SHOULD read is “…99.8pc… were exported without report of welfare incident.” This amended statement does then not imply that a lack of report indicates a lack of welfare issues, as the original statement does.
Animals Australia can;t be in all places at all times, and the industry sure as shi… ps isn’t self-reporting any breaches unless they know someone else is about to.