Calls have intensified for independent vets to be placed on livestock export shipments, for the establishment of an independent authority to oversee the trade, and for a full review of live export standards, in the wake of criticism of industry welfare standards by a former long-serving industry veterinarian.
Dr Lynn Simpson, who had previously conducted more than 50 Australian livestock export voyages, was appointed to a position of technical advisor to the Department of Agriculture’s Animal Welfare Branch in June 2012.
In 2013, a submission she wrote for a review of Australia’s standards for live exports, which provided evidence of poor welfare conditions she had witnessed on vessels, was allegedly accidentally published on the Department’s website.
In an interview with the ABC, she said was gradually isolated, her evidence sanitised and then within weeks was removed from her position.
In a letter advising her of this, Karen Schneider, first assistant director of the Department of Agriculture’s Animal Division, said the industry had expressed a view it could not work with her “as they believe your views on livestock export issues are not objective and are biased in favour of the views of animal welfare organisations.
“I consider that this perception by industry is having an adverse impact on DAFF’s capacity to engage appropriately with industry and hence to deliver acceptable animal welfare reform in the area of livestock exports.
“I would like to stress that I do not share the expressed views of industry and that my decision is based on my view that DAFF’s capacity to work effectively with a range of stakeholders involved in live export trade is diminished thereby affecting progress on livestock export animal welfare reform.”
An ABC 7:30 report drew attention to the issue on Wednesday night, triggering calls from animal welfare groups for the trade to be either shut down or to have tougher conditions imposed.
The RSPCA said the issue demonstrated the urgent need for a review of Australia’s live export standards ASEL), and the transfer of regulatory oversight from the Department of Agriculture and Water Resources to an independent authority.
RSPCA Australia’s Chief Scientist, Dr Bidda Jones, said seven years had passed since the Live Export Standards Advisory Group (LESAG) first supported a review of the Australian Standards for the Export of Livestock (ASEL), yet the standards remain unchanged.
ASEL covers the selection of animals for export on farm and on board the ship to the point of disembarkation in the importing country. In 2011, the government-commissioned independent review of Australia’s livestock export trade (the Farmer Review) found that ‘a full review of the ASEL was a priority’.
The RSPCA said the photographs contained in Dr Simpson’s February 2013 submission were a shocking indictment of the conditions endured by cattle and sheep on board livestock vessels.
“A few weeks later, Dr Simpson was removed from the committee as a direct result of industry pressure. Since then there has been absolutely zero progress – the ASEL remain unchanged since minor amendments were made in 2010”, Dr Jones said.
Dr Simpson’s submission was later removed from the Department’s website.
“The Department of Agriculture and Water Resources still has no processes for receiving independent advice on animal welfare matters relating to live export, and has advised that no resources have been allocated to the long overdue full review of the standards”.
“The current standards fail to ensure people handling animals are aware of their legal responsibilities and have the competency to carry them out, and allow animals that are sick, injured or otherwise unfit to slip through the inspection process”.
The RSPCA said current stocking densities force animals to lie down on top of each other and jostle for access to feed and water points.
It said the issue of Dr Simpson’s removal illustrated the conflict of interest that exists within the Department when it comes to addressing animal welfare issues in the live export trade, “even in the face of stark evidence of inhumane treatment of animals”.
The RSPCA has posted a link to Dr Simpson’s full submission on its website.
Veterinarians Against Live Export (VALE) said a phase out of live export should be a focus of any party seeking government.
VALE said its in-depth analysis had revealed endemic problems with animal cruelty on ships which the live export industry was seeking to suppress by pressuring the vets it employs to stay silent.
“It is disingenuous to suggest that the problems are fixed. Same exporters, same ships, same stocking densities, same welfare issues. The reports we have from live export vets show the inevitable cruelty continues,” VALE spokesperson Dr Sue Foster said.
Dr Foster said there had been numerous recent examples VALE was aware of where the Department had taken no action in response to criticism expressed by on-board vets of welfare issues in the livestock export industry.
“The censuring of Dr Lynn Simpson confirms the undeniable manipulation of the Department by the live export industry in order to hide its dirty animal cruelty secrets,” Dr Foster said.
“Simon Crean, from ALEC, has called for greater collaboration between the live exporters and vets such as Dr Simpson and members of VALE. VALE is sceptical that this will occur. VALE maintains that if industry is serious about animal welfare, there should be an independent vet on every live export voyage, and the whole industry should be overseen by an independent monitor.
“Without this, the live export industry will continue to stagger from crisis to crisis and will continue to be publicly embarrassed by these sorts of revelations. Meanwhile, the animal suffering continues unabated.”
The Australian Veterinary Association (AVA) President, Dr Robert Johnson said the sacking of Dr Simpson, based on the information reported by ABC, should never have happened.
“Veterinarians and others in the Department are responsible for enforcing compliance with welfare regulations, and they must be able to do their jobs.
“The story shown on last night’s episode of ABC’s 7.30 is just another indication that the Australian live export system needs further review.
“This is something we have called for in our 2016 federal election policy platform. We think it’s absolutely critical that veterinarians on live export ships are truly independent, employed by a third party.
“While this incident is certainly very regrettable, it’s a positive sign that Australian Livestock Exporters Council is keen to engage with the veterinary profession to seek improvements to the current system. We will welcome this opportunity to work together constructively.
The AVA has called for improvements to the Exporter Supply Chain Assurance Scheme (ESCAS) as part of its 2016 federal election policy platform.
The Department of Agriculture and Water Resources said in a statement on Thursday that it was aware of the ABC story concerning its former staff member, Dr Lynn Simpson, who it said had resigned from the department on May 10, 2016.
“Dr Lynn Simpson has commenced federal court proceedings against the Commonwealth,” the departmental statement said.
“As this matter is currently before the courts it is not appropriate to comment further.”
The Australian Livestock Exporters’ Council said in a statement it had been working with its members to better understand and realign itself with social expectations since late 2013.
“For many years our industry has been outwardly focused on the needs of our overseas customers, rather than changing expectations of the Australian public,” ALEC chief executive officer Alison Penfold said.
“The ongoing process of aligning Australia’s livestock export industry with community values is a challenging one for ALEC members.
“The change process has allowed a fresh perspective to be placed on past attitudes and behaviours towards people and organisations external to the industry. This applies to those people and organisations who challenged the status quo, or like veterinarian Dr Lynn Simpson, who sought to provide constructive advice to exporters on improvements.
“I reiterate the apology made last week by ALEC chairman Simon Crean, in his on-camera interview with the ABC, for any past behaviours which may have offended Dr Simpson.
“In saying this, ALEC reiterates that at no time did we seek Dr Simpson’s dismissal. The concern at the time was one of governance, specifically the conflict of interest arising from her submission to the ASEL Review at the same time as being a technical adviser to the same Review.
“ALEC cannot change the past, but we do intend to influence how current and future Australian Government Accredited Veterinarians (AAVs) can have their views heard and help inform welfare improvements at an industry level. With this in mind, ALEC will be inviting Dr Simpson, the Australian Veterinary Association (AVA) and Vets Against Live Export (not affiliated with AVA) to participate in a workshop to discuss:
“The Australian livestock export Industry is focused on utilising its levies on research, development and extension to address the key causes of morbidity and mortality towards our goal of zero harm, including those concerns raised by Dr Simpson. Examples of this work includes the development of a salmonella vaccine and research to combat the threat of inanition. Our industry is also completing a project to develop indicators of animal welfare along the supply chain and this project is intended to provide a suite of measures that improve the transparency and targeting of efforts which will have the greatest impact.
“ALEC and our members are heavily invested in the ongoing improvement of our industry and we value the input of animal welfare professionals associated with our industry. We acknowledge that we have more work to do.”