A meat processing industry leader has expressed concern at suggestions the Federal Government may soon require export processors to formally report producers who supply animals to their plants that fail welfare standards.
The issue was raised during a panel discussion at last week’s AgForce State Conference in Toowoomba.
Nolan Meats director Terry Nolan said it has been rumoured the Department of Agriculture is considering a plan to make it compulsory for export processors, as part of their licensing conditions, to report producers to State authorities if they supply cattle with welfare problems such as ingrown horns, overgrown toenails or heavily pregnant cows.
Such animals should not be transported under ‘Fit to Load’ rules and chain-of-responsibility obligations introduced as part of the Australian Animal Welfare Standards and Guidelines for the Land Transport of Livestock across Australia in 2013 and 2014.
Anyone in the care of animals from the point of loading to the point of unloading – including the owner, agent, truck driver, saleyard staff, feedlot, depot or processor – is required to adhere to the standards and guidelines. Penalties for breaches can be substantial and include fines worth thousands of dollars in each States and Territory.
However, Mr Nolan said that abattoir owners are concerned by rumoured moves to make it a requirement for export plants to take a more active role above and beyond the existing rules and to report the condition of cattle which arrive in their plants.
He said export processors operated under an approved arrangement with Government to maintain their export license. Changes being discussed could see processors obliged to report producers to a State authority.
“If we don’t, because we have an AQIS or Department of Ag veterinary officer on site, they will give us a show cause why our license shouldn’t be suspended,” he said.
“I see that as a little bit scary.”
Mr Nolan, a former Australian Meat Industry Council president, said the proposal would put processors in a position “they would rather not be”. It would impact on their relationship with producers on one hand and put their license in jeopardy on the other.
Mr Nolan said it was imperative that all producers read and understand their obligations as explained in the MLA Fit to Load document.
‘We don’t want to be dealing with stock that should never have been loaded in the first place’
“We don’t want to be dealing with stock that should never have been loaded in the first place,” he said.
Mr Nolan said the Australian meat processing industry had proactively moved to introduce Industry Animal Welfare Standards for Livestock Processing Establishments preparing meat for human consumption more than a decade ago in response to changing community expectations.
He explained how a conversation with businessman Peter Holmes a Court as he was returning to Australia to take on AA Co’s chief executive officer role in 2000 had highlighted that the industry had to do more to address welfare issues.
“He said what astounds me coming from England is the lack of attention to animal welfare (here), we need to engage this lobby and take it on board,” Mr Nolan recalled.
“And that was one of those things which stuck in my mind. And that is why we pushed heavily through the Australian Meat Industry Council. Not all sectors have done that.
“We have all got to be very aware of the land transport practices, the on-farm practices.
“Because the obvious flow on is we report someone and then you have an investigator on your property wanting to go through your records and look at your handling yards.
“Fore warned is fore armed if I can say that.
“It might be five years off, but I get the feeling it is only 12 months or two years off.”
Beef Central asked the office of Federal Agriculture Minister Barnaby Joyce if there were plans to require export processors to take a more active role in reporting animal welfare breaches.
A spokesman for the minister said there is no change planned to the export processors responsibilities for responding to potential animal welfare incidents.
Asked by panel facilitator Craig Zonca how high cattle prices could go in the current price cycle, Mr Nolan said that would be determined by how much consumers were prepared to pay.
He said it worried him that some people thought there was no top to the market and that prices will soon spear through the 600c/kg level.
“I am not sure if that will happen, because we have come from the domestic sector, and already we can see a little bit of a fall off in the retail butchers, they are the ones that are feeling it first,” Mr Nolan said.
“I think the major chains, Coles and Woolworths have done it better than most, there has been a fair battle there for market dominance over the last four or five years, but more and more we’re seeing that ALDI is starting to take a little bit of market share off those big too, so that brings the price equation back into it.
“I know that most household budgets have a little bit of pressure on them here in Australia. I think there is a little bit of a movement already amongst the retail butchers to stock a little bit more poultry.”
He acknowledged that the past two years, when 90CL trim exported to the US was commanding prices as high as $7.36/kg, were the best two years export processors in Australia have had.
Many had taken the opportunity to put some money away and to undertake expansions and upgrades with new buildings and to install new plate freezers, he said.
“But we’re also conscious that the industry is cyclical,” Mr Nolan said.
“Sometimes when the producers are doing well, the processors aren’t doing well, it would be lovely to think the graingrowers did well, the feedlotters did well, the beef producer – but it just doesn’t happen, we all take our turn.”
He said that high cattle prices were making it difficult for some domestic processors that did not have access to the better prices available in the export market, with some now talking about possibly shutting their doors.
Mr Nolan said he did not think it would be good for the Australian consumer to see cattle prices sit on 600c/kg all next year.
In terms of cattle supply, he said it seemed likely that the north was now running out of cattle, and supply from the south had also topped off.
“And if we get an influx of live cattle orders from China or Indonesia of the Philippines, Vietnam or somewhere, I think that will be the end of the run.”