Live Export

MoU decision will not reduce welfare standards: Live Exporters

James Nason, 04/03/2014

Australia’s livestock export industry says welfare standards will not be eroded by a Federal Government decision to rescind the need for Memorandums Of Understanding in new livestock export markets.

The Federal Government last Friday reversed a policy introduced by the Labor Government last year which required MoUs to be negotiated with all new overseas markets before they could receive Australian livestock.

MoUs were originally introduced as a mandatory requirement for livestock export markets in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) in 2004, in the wake of the Cormo Express disaster the previous year.

In that crisis Saudi Arabia refused to accept a shipment of Australian sheep, claiming they were infected with Scabby Mouth disease. The country’s refusal to unload the ship left 57,000 sheep stranded at sea for three months, 6000 of which died on board the ship, before an alternative market (Eritrea) could be secured.

Following the Cormo disaster the Australian Government suspended Australia’s trade with Saudi Arabia and introduced a new requirement for Government-to-Government Memorandums of Understanding (MoUs) to be signed with importing countries before exports to MENA region countries could recommence.

The MoUs effectively required each importing country to agree to discharge livestock from vessels and accept them into on-shore quarantine facilities regardless of disputes over their health status.

The MoUs are statements of intent between governments and are not legally binding, but have played an important role in setting out agreed processes in the instance of disputes.

Last year, in response to increased campaigns against the livestock export industry by animal rights groups, then agriculture minister Joel Fitzgibbon decided to expand the requirement for MoUs in MENA markets to include all new livestock export markets.

The livestock export industry had supported the use of MoUs in the MENA region, but in other markets advocated a risk-based approach to MoUs, as opposed to a blanket requirement as implemented by Mr Fitzgibbon.

In announcing his decision to reverse Mr Fitzgibbon’s policy, Mr Joyce said the move cut unnecessary red tape and would not affect how the Government wanted the trade to operate.

Australia currently held MoUs with nine of 31 countries that receive Australian feeder and slaughter livestock, which he said had been of “mixed success”.

This was in clear reference to the events of August 2012, when Bahrain refused to accept and unload 22,000 Australian sheep based on allegations the sheep were contaminated with scabby mouth, contravening its obligations to discharge under an MoU signed with Australia.

As delays continued the exporter, Wellard Rural Exports, found an alternative market in nearby Pakistan where the sheep were unloaded. There they were later condemned as diseased by local officials, despite test results showing they were healthy, and were brutally culled.

While the MoU system clearly failed in that case, exporters say there have been other occasions where the presence of MoUs has ensured that destination countries took delivery of Australian livestock into quarantine facilities even in the midst of disputes over the health status of animals.

Mr Joyce said negotiating MoUs was “time and resource intensive” and imposed a burden on the trade that often delayed access to new markets, meaning Australian exporters often lost valuable market opportunities to export competitors.

Australian exporters still had to meet requirements of the Export Supply Chain Assurance System (ESCAS) and Australia Standards for the Export of Livestock (ASEL), which provided assurances that Australian livestock are treated according to World Organisation for Animal Health welfare standards, in addition to having to meet the animal health requirements of the importing country.

“Trade can go ahead in new markets without an MoU,” Mr Joyce said.

“Where there is already an MoU we are not walking away from it, we are just saying we don't need MoUs in new markets.”

The RSPCA Australia branded the move a step back for animal welfare, saying there will no longer be no measures in place in new markets to reduce the potential for rejected cargoes such as the Ocean Drover by Bahrain in 2012, or the Cormo Express by Saudi Arabia in 2003.

“The dismissal of MoUs is yet another step backwards for animal welfare by the Coalition government, following its dismantling of the Australian Animal Welfare Strategy at the end of 2013 and the closing of the Department’s Animal Welfare Branch, which shuts its doors today,” the RSPCA said in a statement on Friday.

However the industry disagrees with RSPCA’s position.

In a letter written to the minister following his announcement last Friday, the Australian Livestock Exporters Council says exporters will continue to encourage the use of written agreements where necessary.

“It remains industry’s view that there are markets in the Middle East North Africa region that have a higher risk of consignment rejection, particularly those arising from foreign government actions (referred to as sovereign risk),” ALEC’s letter to the minister states.

“Successive Australian Governments have historically used MOUs in MENA markets as a tool for managing these risks.

“ALEC members are of the view that the potential for heightened risk of government interference in trade activities in the MENA region is best dealt with by the development and maintenance of genuine agreements and commitments.

“Consistent with our long term approach, new markets in the MENA region where there is little history of exporters will require a form of assurance at a government to government level.

“The recent commitment by Bahrain, for example, to provide a level of assurance around the discharge of all livestock on arrival provides a means of addressing higher risk areas and we would support a similar approach to new MENA markets including Iran and Iraq for example.”

ALEC CEO Alison Penfold said the industry’s engagement on welfare with MENA markets was stronger than ever. 

“Taking Bahrain as an example, not only do we have a revised health protocol, assurances around discharge but we also have our ongoing program of training and infrastructure improvement through the MLA/LiveCorp Live Export Program and of course, the only supply chain welfare assurance system in the world that focuses on welfare from sourcing to slaughter.

“We are the only country not only exporting livestock we are also exporting animal welfare and I believe most Australians are proud of that fact.”


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