Live Export

Welfare assurance not exporter issue alone

James Nason, 27/09/2012

Australian livestock exporters are held legally accountable for the welfare of all animals through to the point of slaughter under the new ESCAS system.Australian livestock export industry leaders believe that more resources – particularly those of the animal rights movement working to undermine the trade – should be directed at encouraging countries that are signatories to the World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE) to lift their game in meeting their obligations under the standards.

To simply remove Australia from these markets, as many animal rights activists are advocating, is to remove one of the few agents that exist for positive animal welfare change in many countries.

“At some point anyone who is committed to improving animal welfare needs to ensure it is done for all animals,” Australian Livestock Exporters Council chief executive officer Alison Penfold says.

“The best way of achieving that is not by imposing additional regulation on Australia – it is working and encouraging our trading partners and working though the OIE as actively and as persistently as we can to raise standards across the world.

“You take Australia out of the equation and out of 109 livestock exporting countries, how many else are doing what we’re doing?

“The answer is zero.”

Under the Export Supply Chain Assurance System now in place across 99 percent of Australia’s livestock export markets, Australian livestock exporters are required to take unprecedented levels of responsibility for the livestock they sell overseas.

Were ESCAS translated into Australian market terms, what is now asked of exporters would be the equivalent of requiring livestock producers in Australia to take full legal responsibility for the welfare of every feeder and processing animal they sell, long after it has left their farm and right through to the point of slaughter.

Producers would be required to sign welfare assurance contracts with the transport companies, backgrounders, feedlots and abattoirs that handle their cattle and place scanning equipment at all points of each supply chain to ensure reports can be provided back to authorities whenever required.

They would also have to pay for third-party auditors to inspect the trucks and feedlots and abattoirs they supply, and would have to do this several times a year.

But, most significantly, the producer would also be held liable for any breach that occurs in animal welfare standards anywhere along the way, regardless of who was directly responsible for the offence, or how many steps removed it occurred from his or her farm.

Penalties for breaches would range from requirements to conduct even more regular audits and to employ animal welfare officers to follow their stock, through to being banned from being able to sell livestock ever again and possible criminal charges.

Effectively under ESCAS, the person who initially owns and sells the livestock – the exporter in the export situation, or the cattle producer in our hypothetical domestic market situation – is held legally responsible under ESCAS for the welfare of the cattle right through to slaughter.

Liberal Senator and veterinarian Chris Back has previously drawn the analogy that what ESCAS requires would be similar to holding the RSPCA legally accountable for what happens to every cat or dog it sells out of its shelters.

Last week’s footage broadcast by ABC’s 7:30 Report of mistreatment of Australian animals on a farm in Qatar, when animals were reported to have died while an Australian veterinary technician consulting to the farm was away on a 10 day break, gave rise to calls for ESCAS to be extended beyond feeder and slaughter cattle to include livestock shipped for breeding and dairying purposes as well.

Australian export industry leaders say that all exported animals are already protected under existing regulatory controls, such as through the Australian Standards for the Export of Livestock, which are currently being reviewed, and AMSA requirements for vessels.

In their view extending the regulatory reach further to cover breeding animals would only serve to shut the breeder trade down. They argue that the issues highlighted by last week’s story had more do to with poor animal husbandry practices in Qatar than any practices related to the live export process.

Developing assurance protocols for exported breeders presents a more complex set of circumstances than cattle sold for feeder and slaughter purposes. They can be sold into a range of production systems, across a diverse range of areas, amd can have productive lives of 10-12 years before they are processed. 

One industry source said that requiring exporters to remain legally responsible for cows years after they have been sold to the initial customer would be like asking an Australian cattle producer to remain legally accountable for what happens to breeding cattle they sell at all points of their future life, regardless of how many times they are sold, or where they end up in future.

Former Australian ambassador to Indonesia Bill Farmer AO also acknowledged the challenges of developing protocols for breeding cattle in his Independent Review of Australia’s Livestock Export trade last year.

“There are practical difficulties with the extension to breeders of the new arrangements to be utilised for feeder/slaughter livestock,” Mr Farmer he wrote in his final report.

“It would be difficult, costly and intrusive for the Australian Government/industry to maintain a ‘line of sight’ arrangement for breeders, particularly over the many years that breeders may live prior to being sold for slaughter.

“The Review does not believe that it is practicable or reasonable to impose that requirement on regulators or industry. It accepts, however, that there are other views on this matter.”

However for the past 12 months the livestock export industry has been working with its trading partners and the Australian Government to develop a welfare assurance policy specifically for exported breeding and dairy animals.

ALEC says that after a lot of effort, the industry is close to finalising the policy, “although exporters are already applying the principles to Indonesia”.

Last week’s story on animal deaths in the Middle East highlighted the level of responsibility livestock exporters now carry for animals far removed from their direct control.

ALEC has called on the Qatari Government to conduct a full investigation into the farm involved, given that the country is a signatory to the OIE and has obligations to maintain welfare standards under its agreement.

The investigation should deal specifically with questions such as who on the farm was directly responsible for the management of the animals, and who was left in charge of their welfare when the Australian veterinary technician working there to improve conditions took leave.

Australia’s live export industry continues to argue that it is the only country in the world that invests in bettering animal welfare practices abroad. That level of investment has improved conditions for livestock from other origins in the same markets. Take Australia out of the equation, and the only active force for strong welfare change in those countries is removed.

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