Federal agriculture minister Barnaby Joyce says he is yet to decide what approach Australia should take in order to resume its once significant livestock export trade with Saudi Arabia, amid speculation that exemptions to animal welfare regulations may be offered in order to revive the trade.
However the Minister says the Federal Government remains firmly committed to re-opening the trade with the large sheep and cattle import market, which was once Australia’s largest livestock export market for sheep.
Reports in the mainstream media on Friday suggested that the Minister is considering exempting the Saudi Arabian market from some elements of the Exporter Supply Chain Assurance System (ESCAS), which requires all markets that receive Australian livestock to adhere to strict animal welfare conditions.
No importing country is currently able to import Australian sheep or cattle without first agreeing to the requirements of ESCAS, which was rolled out across all markets in 2011 and 2012 (Egypt was added earlier this year).
Saudi Arabia, once a major importer of Australian sheep and cattle, has so far refused to accept the imposition of Australian rules in its own supply chains as required under the system.
A report in the West Australian on Friday said Saudi Arabia was being considered as a special case for exemption from some aspects of ESCAS because its livestock processing facilities were Government owned and controlled and enforced strict animal welfare laws.
The costs of implementing and maintaining ESCAS has also made Australian livestock more expensive in export markets, which has also seen many of those markets, including Saudi, source less expensive livestock from other countries, even though Australian cattle and sheep are highly valued for their clean health status in particular.
The oil-rich Saudi Arabia remains one of the world’s largest importers of sheep and cattle and is seen as a potential market for more than one million Australian sheep per year and in excess of 100,000 cattle if the trade is re-opened.
Animal welfare groups yesterday claimed that any move to exempt a market from the full requirements of ESCAS would endanger Australian animals.
“Any nation unwilling to meet ESCAS requirements must not be allowed to import Australian animals as it will allow poor practices to continue,” RSPCA chief executive Heather Neil said.
“Giving special consideration and exemptions for one country is a slippery slope back to the horrors we saw in Indonesian abattoirs in 2011 – what’s to stop others from bullying Australia into the same thing?”
“ESCAS was put in place following the exposure of systemic animal cruelty and immense public outcry – it is the bare minimum that should be required.
“57,000 Australian sheep were rejected by Saudi Arabia in 2003, leaving them floating at sea for three months and as a result thousands died. This is not a destination that can be trusted to ensure adequate animal welfare practices will be met.
“The community can expect that Australian sheep will suffer inhumane slaughter as a result of this decision.
“This Government seems fixated on trumpeting the expansion of the cruel live export trade, rather than focusing on increased investment in the boxed meat trade in order to secure new markets for Australian producers, and ensure the long-term welfare of our animals,” said Ms Neil.
Animals Australia campaign director Lyn White said if a deal was struck with Saudi Arabia, Mr Joyce would be telling the world that Australia’s animal welfare standards could be bought and dismantled.
Mr Joyce said in a statement to Beef Central on Friday that no final decision had been made.
“However the Australian government remains committed to reopening the livestock trade with Saudi Arabia and is still in discussions with the Saudi government on how this can be facilitated,” Mr Joyce said.
It is satisfying to see that some practicalities are being considered by Mr Joyce in his discussions with Saudi Arabia, this shows that Australia are genuinely committed to finding a resolution in order to re-open live sheep exports to this massive market. When the Saudi’s cancelled this trade with Australia in 2011 they did so in retaliation to a dogmatic attitude by the previous government, Mr Joyce is showing that give-and-take is required as it always is in negotiations. Live sheep exporters throughout Australia are watching developments with Saudi Arabia, particularly those from the biggest exporter, Western Australia, with great anticipation. What Lyn White needs to understand is this – Australia cannot dictate in absolute terms the extent to which ESCAS can be applied to all importers, there are circumstances, such as is evident in Saudi Arabia that require diplomatic negotiations be carried out in order that they concede to the prime aspects of ESCAS, and that is a changing attitude to animal welfare generally, which is what the Saudi’s are doing. We wish Mr Joyce success in reaching an agreement to overcome this inherited impasse effecting such a vital market for Australia.