Rich chords of harmony rang out at the Brisbane Convention Centre last Friday where opponents and supporters of live animal exports gathered to discuss the trade’s future.
It did not represent a watershed breakthrough in animal advocate-livestock industry relations however.
The same venue also happened to be hosting an international convention for Barbershop Quartet singers in the Great Hall on the ground floor, meaning that visitors were immersed in the sounds of soaring melodies and glorious harmonies as small groups of singers practiced their renditions at the entrance.
As tenors and baritones merged in blissful accord on the floor below, upstairs the views of animal advocates and live exporters came together by comparison with all the smooth synchronicity of a rock in a blender.
But despite highlighting the clear gulf that exists between both sides, the forum also underlined the fact that at the end of the day the majority of people in both camps have the same basic motivations at heart – to ensure the care and humane treatment of animals.
The RSPCA-organised “Live Export: Time for a Sea Change” symposium was focused on outlining the case against live exports.
The line-up of speakers featured animal advocates, scientists, veterinarians, academics and meat industry employee union representatives who each spoke in favour of ending the trade. Their reasons included the lack of laws that exist to protect animal welfare in destination countries, inhumane slaughter practices and cultural and religious resistance to stunning in many markets, the unpreventable disease and injury that was described as synonomous with ocean-based livestock transport, the ethical issues of exposing Australian animals to conditions that they would not be exposed to here, the impact of the trade on processing sector jobs and value-adding in Australia, and the view that live exports can be replaced by chilled beef.
One representative of the livestock sector was invited to share the stage, Agforce cattle president Grant Maudsley, who spoke about the importance of the trade to rural livelihoods, the livestock industry’s commitment to guaranteeing animal welfare outcomes, its requirement for pre-slaugter stunning which is over and above OIE standards, and the need for a fresh start between the livestock industry and the RSPCA.
Several livestock industry representatives also took the microphone during question and answer sessions to defend the livestock industry including AgForce representatives Brent Finlay, John Stewart and Andrew Simpson, Australian Live Export Council chief executive Lach MacKinnon, Cattle Council of Australia executive director David Inall and Elders northern livestock manager Tony Gooden.
The audience was dominated by opponents of the live export trade which resulted in regular cheers as speakers outlined the case against the trade and occasional interjections and jeers as livestock industry representatives spoke in its favour.
They may have been outnumbered but the cattle industry members made their presence felt with regular questions, statements and corrections of misinformation about the trade where they encountered it.
Cost of shut down
Tony Gooden from Elders said he had not come across anyone in the livestock industry who was not shocked or horrified by what they saw, but added that most Australians would still find footage of cattle being killed in the most humane abattoir confronting.
He said conditions on ships had improved enormously, with very few cattle lost on the very short voyage to Indonesia, and feedlots in the country were superior. The final processing in some abattoir facilities was "obviously grossly substandard", but that was a small representation and not indicative of the entire trade.
He described the Four Corners program that led to the ban as unbalanced, explaining that Elders operated a world class abattoir in Indonesia that the program had not included.
The program and temporary market shut-down that followed came at a significant financial and economic cost and had done Australia a huge amount of harm in terms of its respectability in the trade, he said.
“Who cares? It’s about the animals, it’s not about people,” a woman nearby interjected.
“Well a lot of people do care,” Mr Gooden said. “No one condones cruelty to animals.
“My view is we have a responsibility to work with those people around the world in those countries to try and improve the trade, and, yes, there could always be more done and yes everyone wants to see a better outcome, but its not easy….
“This is a basic food protein that they require. At the end of the day economies, the open market, these things are going to continue to go on, and as a privileged nation we have a responsibility to help them to improve that process, not to walk away from it.”
Again the crowd erupted with comments around the room including “We have a responsibility to the animals” and “It’s about the animals."
At that point the moderator asked the crowd not to interject and to “let everyone have their say in a respectful way”.
RSPCA chief scientist Dr Bidda Jones responded by saying she didn’t personally find the slaughter of animals when done humanely a shock and awe experience. She said she had found slaughter practices to be 100pc humane in Australia, but did not find a single incidence of humane slaughter in footage she had been shown from Indonesia.
She said the industry had only acted on improving animal welfare after it was exposed.
“Everyone always referred to stunning as aspirational goal, something we were moving forward to, without ever saying when.
“Suddenly we have a framework, we have a supply chain, we have traceability, suddenly the industry is saying we won’t accept anything less than stunning, that is a massive move forward just in months that didn’t happen before.
“To me the lesson of that is we have allowed animals to go into countries at whatever standards they had because we wanted to get the animals in there and we wanted a market. The moment we say we can’t go unless they meet the standard, suddenly we can do it,” which attracted applause.
Future of welfare if Australian exports banned
The question of what will happen to the welfare of cattle still processed in the market if Australian cattle were removed was put to Animals Australia’s Lyn White by AgForce cattle director Andrew Simpson. “Is that out of sight, out of mind?,” he asked.
She said Australia could still assist with animal welfare improvement in foreign countries through aid programs, through the OIE and through welfare groups.
“Just because we don’t trade them with animals doesn’t mean we can’t still have a presence if it wants to improve animal welfare programs.
“Two to three years ago we put to industry as a welfare group that if they wanted to reduce suffering and the risk to the live exported animals that by introducing closed systems, by making certain they only went through certain abattoirs, that that obviously would be the first thing they could do.
“They said that they couldn’t do it. That is now happening and in fact three market places – Bahrain, Kurait, Qatar…
“This industry has never realised that that actually saying these are the standards we want you to meet to have the supply of Australian animals that they actually had the leverage to improve supply
“To suggest that we can’t still assist these countries in improving animal welfare just because we’re trading isn’t a reality that we should be accepting.”
Talking to Beef Central after the event Lyn White said it was constructive to bring both sides of the debate together.
While animal advocates would not change their view that live exports should be banned, she suggested there was scope for both sides to find common ground.
As landholders had expressed shock at what they saw on Four Corners, she encouraged them to join the campaign to force the Federal Government to introduce mandatory stunning in all markets that accept Australian cattle.
Caucus was currently considering a motion calling for compulsory stunning, and she urged producers and industry bodies to lobby for that to happen.
“We need landholders telling them that, it really needs farmers and producer bodies to be saying this is what we want,” Ms White said.
“This is a win win – it protects animals, it protects the future of the trade because there will be less possibilities for extreme cruelty to be documented, so it protects the producers themselves.”
“What we need is everybody to be singing from the same songsheet this time around.”
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