Opinion: RSPCA opposition to live export justifiable and economically rational

Malcolm Caulfield, Principal Lawyer, Animal Law Institute, 23/05/2015

Last week’s article from Australian Farm Institute executive director Mick Keogh questioning the RSPCA’s new online campaign against the livestock export trade has prompted this response from the Animal Law Institute’s prinicpal lawyer Malcolm Caulfield:

Mick Keogh of the Australian Farm Institute has vehemently criticised RSPCA Australia’s recent online campaign against live exports (Beef Central 21 May 2015).

In his opinion piece, Mr Keogh draws comparisons between the number of animals which die on live export voyages and the number of pet animals which State RSPCAs kill because they can’t be rehomed or are too sick.

He also points to what he says are flaws in RSPCA Australia’s campaign, including that it assumes if live export is stopped, importing countries will switch to beef imports, that animals exported live can be switched to domestic processing (the campaign in fact says neither of these things) and that RSPCA Australia, in order to be consistent, should be calling for tighter laws controlling pet ownership.

He concludes his piece by suggesting that RSPCA Australia has other motives in criticising live export, related to competition for public funding.

He cites no evidence for this suggestion and I note in passing that in any case RSPCA Australia’s campaign is not associated with a request for donations. Finally, he says that the approach of RSPCA Australia will alienate it from policy makers and increase the divide between the organisation and the farm sector.

My first response to this is that Mr Keogh’s position on live export contradicts that adopted by most Australians. UMR Research, a highly respected polling company, in January this year surveyed over 1,000 Australians across the country, and found that 59% of those questioned disapproved of live export. There was little difference between rural and metropolitan respondents. In speaking out against live export, RSPCA Australia is completely in tune with what the majority of Australians think.

This position is hardly new. To my knowledge, RSPCA Australia has been opposed to live export since its foundation. Moreover, even the participants in live export realise that the public has serious doubts about the trade. Alison Penfold of the Australian Livestock Exporters’ Council has referred to the need for the trade to have a “social licence”, and to “build trust” with the Australian public. She has gone so far as to say that as public awareness of the trade has increased, the public has made it clear it will not accept practices which are “intolerably cruel” (Farm Weekly 31 March 2014).

Australian farmers would also do well to reflect on the position of their New Zealand counterparts. On 30 April 2015 Queensland Country Life ran a piece entitled ‘Live ex damages reputation: NZ’. What was really interesting here was that this was apparently being said by “NZ farming industry leaders”, according to the article.

The other factor which Australian farmers need to be clear about is the relative contributions of live cattle export and beef production to the Australian economy. The most recent issue of ‘Agricultural Commodities’ (March Quarter 2015) from the Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics and Sciences (ABARES) estimates that the total value of cattle slaughtered in 2014-15 will be just under $9 billion, beef exports will be worth about $8 billion in the same period and live cattle export will be worth about one tenth of that – $800 million. Of course this underestimates the true contribution of beef to the Australian economy, given that the multiplier factor for contribution of meat processing to both employment and gross domestic product is about 5; for live export both of those ‘value-adding’ factors will be negligible. The point is not whether cattle exported live could be used in the local processing industry, but whether the market can be structured so that there is no need to export cattle live. All of the economic predictions point in the direction of increased demand for beef on a global basis, so it surely makes sense to respond to that, rather than continuing to support live export, with all its associated woes. It makes even more sense when you realise that both the economic analysts and the live exporters are talking about stealing cattle for live export from the domestic meat processors. The ABARES ‘Agricultural Commodities’ analysis at the end of 2014 said that not only was export demand for beef going to remain strong, but that demand for cattle for live export would reduce the supply of cattle for slaughter. Scott Braithwaite of live exporter Wellard’s has recently boldly suggested that live export, rather than cattle for slaughter, could become the dominant destination for Australian cattle. It makes business sense for farmers to get the best price for their cattle, and if they get that from live export, then so be it. But that is not necessarily what is best for Australia – which is a question for government, who would do well to remember that meat processing alone directly employees over 200,000 people – that’s twenty times more than the people said to be employed both directly and indirectly by the live export trade.

RSPCA Australia’s position on animal welfare is based on sound science and strong evidence of animal abuse overseas. Not only are there serious problems with factors such as heat stress, infections, injuries and ammonia levels on live export voyages, but it is also becoming very clear that unacceptable slaughter and handling practices continue in importing countries despite the attempts of the Australian government to control what goes on in foreign slaughterhouses. The most recent revelations of cattle being bludgeoned to death with sledgehammers in Vietnam indicate how unacceptable animal welfare is still a huge issue in the live export trade.

That mention of the Australian government’s regulations concerning treatment of our animals overseas raises a very interesting point concerning the role of RSPCA Australia. The Australian Livestock Exporters’ Council (ALEC) said on its website (in January 2015) that the supply chain assurance scheme for exported animals (‘ESCAS’) had “vastly improved” the treatment of those animals overseas. But let’s not forget that ESCAS would not exist were it not for RSPCA Australia’s Chief Scientist (Dr Bidda Jones) highly critical analysis of the attempt by MLA to whitewash the treatment of cattle in Indonesia. So ALEC has RSPCA Australia to thank (amongst others) for that vast improvement in animal welfare.

Finally, the comparison in Mr Keogh’s article of State RSPCAs (which are different from RSPCA Australia in any case) killing pets, and cattle dying on ships and being mistreated overseas, is an odd comparison. Unwanted pets are euthanased humanely; by contrast, cattle die hideous deaths on ships and suffer serious cruelty overseas. So there is no comparison. And in any case, the laws governing pet ownership are very strict, due in no small part to the efforts of the RSPCAs around the country. For example, the New South Wales Companion Animals Act 1998 requires companion animals to be identified and registered and the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act 1979 in that State imposes significant duties on pet owners. So really Mr Keogh’s call for the RSPCA to do more is unnecessary. They have already done what he asks. I can’t understand why RSPCA Australia cannot criticise the undeniable animal welfare issues in live export because State RSPCAs kill animals (because there is no alternative).

To conclude, the Australian public thinks live export is cruel and should be stopped. The Australian beef industry is dynamic and growing. It is clear that leaders in the agriculture sector should be listening to the public and making a strategic response to channel resources in the direction of growing animals for slaughter, not live export. This will benefit not only farmers, but the Australian economy and jobs. RSPCA Australia’s position on live export is completely consistent with its commitment to improving the welfare of Australian animals. Instead of shooting the messenger, farmers should listen and respond. I suspect that Mr Keogh’s writings are part of a wider campaign to vilify RSPCAs who dare to speak out on these sorts of issues. This may well result in some State governments pulling funding for RSPCA inspectors. Whether or not that happens, I am sure that RSPCAs and RSPCA Australia will continue to fly the flag for animal welfare.


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  1. Louise Walsh, 19/08/2015

    Is ‘live export’ the issue that engenders public horror, or is it all and any cases of inhumane treatment of animals. We have an obligation to ‘care’ for the animals in our care. I have worked in the cattle industry and know that the cattle industry overall is cognisant of this stewardship responsibility. However there are aspects that need attention, aspects that are not worthy of us as people. These aspects are not restricted to the cattle industry. We should have a watchdog of care and attention of animals. If that is the RSPCA, so be it. But lets look at their charter, do they have the authority and resources to monitor animal businesses? I am sure many people would volunteer to assist in such a role. Lets not cover up the poor cases of care, and lets not focus on prosecuting those who bring the poor cases of care to public attention, for they do a great service to the animals, to Australians and to Australia. Let us continue to improve on requisite and humane standards of care for all animals, and act on cases of cruelty and inhumane stewardship. We would send a signal by starting with a ban on live exports of animals.

  2. Chris Hughes, 25/05/2015

    The live export trade exists only because it pays more for cattle than does the meat industry, thus providing much needed competition and better returns to the northern cattle producer.If Australian live cattle were not available in traditional live importing countries; it is doubtful if Australian processed meat would be imported in its place, as our meat is much more expensive than that of many other meat exporting countries. The live export trade may well be only ten percent the value of the meat industry but to the northern cattle industry it is of vital importance.

  3. john hall, 25/05/2015

    before calling these cruelly killed cattle Australian record their N.L.I.S. tag number and show that to the public because I have not yet seen any cattle cruelty treated with N.L.I.S. tags. So come on RSPCA show the Proof.
    Cheers & Beers
    John Hall

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