Live Export

Opinion: Truth the first casualty of live export war

Mick Keogh, Australian Farm Institute, 28/05/2013

There is a saying that truth is the first casualty in any war, and that is certainly the case in relation to the current 'war' on live animal exports that is being waged by a number of animal rights activists groups in Australia. The challenge for Australia's sheep and cattle industries is to counter some of this misinformation, before it becomes accepted knowledge amongst voters.

Animals Australia has shot to prominence over recent years as a group spearheading the campaign to ban live exports from Australia. Their campaign in the wake of the ABC 4 Corners "Bloody Business" program, in conjunction with activist group GetUp, led to the suspension of live cattle exports to Indonesia in mid 2011, and the establishment of the ESCAS system whereby exporters are required to track animals through to slaughter.

The Animal Australia campaign has continued, fueled by judicious releases of video footage that purports to be evidence of continuing cruelty to cattle exported from Australia (although it is difficult to verify if Australian cattle are involved in the videos), and through the organisation's website, which contains a large collection of information about the live export trade, all of it supporting a ban of the trade.

Some of the 'facts' Animals Australia uses in support of its campaign are at best highly contentious, and in many cases are blatantly wrong. Following are some examples of the information provided by Animals Australia on its website, in the form of questions and answers.

As the subsequent commentary highlights, the Animals Australia information is either wrong, or highly misleading.

Q: Isn't Australia the only country that currently invests money in the welfare of exported animals? Don't we need to be involved in the trade to make a positive difference?

AA: Despite industry claims, Australia is not the only country that invests in animal welfare overseas. Through the OIE (World Organisation of Animal Health) America, Canada and Europe all provide funding for animal welfare activities abroad.

This is a highly misleading answer. The OIE is the world organisation for animal health, and its role in the area of animal welfare is to develop and publish international animal welfare standards, and to hold conferences on animal welfare issues. Australia is one of the 178 member nations, along with the nations mentioned in the AA response. The OIE does not carry out any on-ground activities or programs aimed at assisting nations to improve animal welfare in the same way that Australia does (and only Australia does). To assert that membership of the OIE is equivalent to the sort of animal welfare programs Australia has implemented and funded on the ground in export destinations is completely and utterly false.

Q: What are the likely impacts on the Australian economy should the live trade be banned?

AA: Five separate economic reports over the past four years have confirmed that live exports are undermining Australia's meat processing industry — an industry five times more lucrative than live exports.

Again – a very misleading answer. The five reports identified were all prepared either for Animal Welfare groups or for Meat Processors, and all broadly identify that if live exports were banned, there would need to be increased numbers of animals processed through Australian abattoirs, which would be advantageous for Australian meat processing companies. All of these reports assume that markets will be able to be found for the processed meat, and little consideration is given in these to the fact that Australia's high meat processing costs would mean much lower returns for farmers. There is also the 'minor' problem that all of Australia's meat processors are located in southern Australia, and the freight costs for cattle transported from northern Australia to these southern processors often exceeds $200 per head, making the option totally uneconomic for northern Australian cattle producers, as is being more than starkly demonstrated at the moment.

Q: Are there enough abattoirs to slaughter animals in Australia?

AA: There are around 8 million cattle slaughtered in Australia each year. In 2010, around 500,000 cattle were exported to Indonesia; with just over 400,000 exported to the same country in 2011. Thus, cattle exported make up only a small portion of the total cattle industry.

Indeed, even before the restriction on export to Indonesia came into place, only around half the cattle sent to market from the Northern Territory each year (around 600,000) were exported; with the rest being sent to abattoirs here. There are plans underway for several new abattoirs in the north of Australia, one near Darwin, and another being considered for Broome (WA) and a further one in Queensland. Many cattle originally destined for Indonesia from the Northern Territory and north Queensland were being slaughtered in Queensland during the one-month suspension of the trade last year.

Australia's major sheep processors have confirmed that they have the capacity to process all sheep currently going to live export. Again, 32 million sheep are slaughtered in Australia each year, just over 2 million sheep are exported live.

The deception continues. Yes, there may be sufficient processing capacity in Australia in total, but not in locations from which live cattle are exported. There are no processing facilities in northern Australia at present, although one is under construction at Darwin. The seasonality and high costs of maintaining a processing facility in northern Australia, combined with a lack of cold chain logistics capacity has made such facilities uneconomic (despite many attempts) and to purport that 'plans' for new facilities amount to certain processing capacity is highly misleading. In the case of sheep, there may well be sufficient processing capacity, but history has shown that the 'market' is not seeking chilled or frozen product, but requires fresh, locally slaughtered meat to be supplied into local wet markets where refrigeration is generally not readily available. The premium available for 'boat' sheep over sheep destined for processing in Australia highlights the market reality that Animals Australia seems happy to ignore.

Q: What about the 10,000 people who currently rely on the live trade for their income?

AA: The vast majority of jobs currently supported by the live export trade will still exist when it is phased out and replaced with onshore processing. Truck drivers will still be needed to transport animals as will stockmen, animal handlers, people working at saleyards etc. A succession of economic reports have concluded that phasing out the live trade and replacing it with a meat only trade will in fact create jobs.

This answer is highly misleading because it involves two major assumptions – (1) that cattle processing capacity will be developed in northern Australia if live exports are banned, and (2) that it will still be economically feasible to produce cattle and sheep for processing, despite Australia's very high processing costs. Both these assumptions are highly questionable, especially for the northern cattle industry. Deducting processing and transport costs from cattle producers returns means cattle production will be uneconomic in many regions and the industry in those areas will simply shut down – with the loss of jobs (many of these being indigenous workers) and economic activity in those regions. The 'succession' of economic reports consider the impact of the change on the meat processing sector assuming that livestock production will remain economic and that additional markets will be found – both highly questionable assumptions.

There is plenty of other 'information' on the Animals Australia website which is being used in support of its continuing campaign against live exports which is highly contentious and often misleading. The challenge for Australia's sheep and cattle industries is to ensure that the misinformation is highlighted and corrected, before it becomes an accepted fact amongst voters. 

  • This article was originall published on the Australian Farm Institute website – to view original article click here


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