The Federal Government’s move to ban live cattle exports to a handful of Indonesian abattoirs will not, in the long term, end the inhumane slaughtering practices revealed in Monday’s Four Corners report.
Australian cattle will continue to be exported to other Indonesian abattoirs that may have equally bad practices, so in the short term Australia should immediately send inspectors to accompany all cattle export shipments.
This will ensure that scenes such as the ones we witnessed in the report do not continue occur.
The Australian live export industry is divided between sheep, which are exported from the south-west of the country via Fremantle, and cattle exported from the northern ports.
In 2009, approximately 3 million sheep were exported to the Middle East and almost one million cattle were exported, with the majority (74%) going to Indonesia.
More than 700,000 animals are sent to Indonesia annually, which generates nearly three quarters of a billion dollars for the Australian economy. Export ports include Brisbane, Broome, Townsville and Darwin.
If the live export trade is banned now, there will be immediate harmful consequences for animals that would have otherwise been exported to Indonesia.
Australian producers will be unable to provide for these animals from their feedstocks, and they would be reluctant or unable to purchase supplementary feed, as the price of cattle would rapidly decline.
This would potentially create welfare problems even greater than the ones we have seen in Indonesia.
Instead, after an agreed time Australia should only send cattle to Indonesian abattoirs that agree to stun their cattle prior to slaughter.
Stunning involves a sharp blow to the back of the head, which renders the animal unconscious.
This will take time for permanent implementation, probably six months to nine months at least, because the cattle have to be effectively restrained before the stunning device is applied.
Muslim clerics will argue that this is not Halal meat, because the animals are not being killed by a cut to the throat, in which case they must obtain their meat from other sources.
The Koran provides overwhelming and copious support for good treatment of animals, but percussion stunning devices were not available when it was written and it did not have to deal with the issue of very large Australian cattle that the handlers have obvious difficulty controlling.
Some people argue that if Australia doesn’t send cattle to Indonesia they will be obtained from countries with worse welfare standards than ours.
In my view, this is not an argument to perpetuate the trade. We should do what we think is morally justifiable, and this does not include sanctioning inhumane practices.
The World Animal Health Organisation has global sea-transport standards and these will apply to Indonesia as well as likely cattle suppliers, such as Brazil.
Both Indonesia and Brazil are members of the organisation.
The medium-term solution is that abattoirs must be rapidly established in northern Australia to process cattle coming out of that region.
This will probably take at least two years, but it must be done.
Two surveys I have organised have found that on average people in parts of Asia have less concern for animal welfare and rights than those in developed western countries, and a major reason is because of their poor economic circumstances.
This is unlikely to change, but this incident may act as a catalyst for us to consider whether we offer enough assistance to the emerging economy of Indonesia.
In the long term, there are food shortages looming in Asia, and land for food production will be increasingly in short supply globally.
There are areas of northern Australia that can, with sufficient infrastructural support and investment, be used much more efficiently for food production than extensive cattle production.
However, that is a debate for another day as we have a crisis affecting our valued cattle producers in the north of this country that must be addressed.
There has been much criticism of how cattle producers such as Meat and Livestock Australia and Livecorp have handled their task of researching and advancing the welfare of exported animals.
In 2005, following the Cormo Express disaster in which over 5000 sheep died and many more suffered after a consignment was rejected by Saudi Arabian authorities, I called for openness on the part of the industry to inspection and review.
Regrettably I cannot confirm that my research group at the University of Queensland has always found this to be the case.
We have been denied access to ships to monitor animal stress levels, and even had difficulties publishing the work that we did do with industry support.
In 2008 I made a trip around Australia visiting 50 cattle and sheep properties to talk about animal welfare issues and experienced significant difficulties getting access to producers in northern Australia.
It was clear that many of the producers that I visited knew that they were extremely vulnerable to any investigation of the way in which their exported animals were treated in Indonesia.
Because of this, plans have already been considered for abattoirs in Broome and Darwin.
Six years ago I applied to MLA and Livecorp, on their request, for funds to study these overseas abattoir practices, including the requirement for a sharp knife to sever the head of the animals.
The application was turned down. MLA and Livecorp knew that abattoir practices in the countries to which they exported animals were poor, but their response was insufficient.
They developed and installed casting boxes in some abattoirs that did not meet basic animal welfare standards and attempts to train abattoir operators to look after their animals’ welfare better were poor.
Hence we must now ensure that the cattle are slaughtered in Australia.
The scenes that we saw in the Four Corners report were understandably distressing, but we should also remember that there are also harmful practices within the domestic livestock industry, and we should seek to solve these issues just as enthusiastically as the problems in Indonesia.
Unwanted dairy (bobby) calves are sent on trucks to slaughter at just a week of age without food or water.
Cattle are dehorned without anaesthetic, they may die from heat stress, flood or starvation on properties, or they may be transported long distances within Australia to our own abattoirs without food or water.
Perhaps the best thing to come out of the exposé in Indonesia would be a widespread review and upgrade of the welfare of Australian cattle, from birth to death.
Last week, video footage of animal cruelty kicked off yet another live export controversy. The footage appeared to show not just confronting and inappropriate animal treatment, but the likely movement of Australian-exported sheep outside designated buyers and slaughter plants.
The government has responded by expressing support for live export, coupled with a promise to investigate and deal with any breaches in the ESCAS - the export supply chain assurance scheme.
Confronted with repeated incidents over the past few years, the Australian public may well ask, “Why hasn’t this been fixed?” and “Can live export ever be made humane?”.
Live export presents a singularly difficult problem for ensuring animal welfare.
It is generally accepted that the longer and more complex the journey an animal makes, the greater the risk to its welfare. That’s not to say that the welfare of an animal for a longer journey necessarily has to be worse, but the risks tend to be greater and need more complex management.
The most critical reason why it is difficult to ensure animal welfare in live export is because exported animals are beyond Australia’s sovereign control. They are beyond our laws and our capacity for enforcement.
The Australian government has tried to address this hurdle by negotiating Memorandums of Understanding with importing countries. In addition, the export supply chain assurance scheme was developed to achieve animal welfare control. It provides regulatory oversight of the contractual arrangements that exist down the supply chain, and limits Australian-derived animals to certain buyers and slaughter places.
But live export is difficult to “fix” because the direction of animal welfare concern is completely separate to the direction the animals travel as they are bought and sold through the export process.
In other circumstances, many farm animal welfare issues are eventually fixed by market-based change. For example, consumers start demanding animal welfare attributes like sow-stall-free pork, and the market provides them. As a result, animal welfare improves.
Live export presents a unique problem, because the location of greatest animal welfare concern is the Australian public, and the Australian public has absolutely no market power in the equation. We’re not the ones buying the cows.
In making these points, it is fair to acknowledge that importing countries have animal health and welfare requirements. It is just that these requirements may be different to what the public in this country expects for Australian animals.
Animal welfare in live export has proved difficult to solve because of the complex risks involved, the inability to enforce Australian laws beyond our borders, and the need to improve animal welfare by “pushing” standards down the supply chain, rather than having them “pulled through” by buyer demand.
The key question remains - can live export ever be humane?
The industry has improved aspects over the past 20 years. There have been declines in published mortality rates on ships, and the industry has instituted training programs for animal handlers in importing countries.
But while live export continues, adverse animal welfare incidents will come to light. One simple reason for this is that no system or level of legal oversight can guarantee that nothing bad will happen. Even in Australia we can’t stamp out incidents of animal cruelty altogether.
It is also difficult to guarantee that no Australian animals will be bought or sold outside the designated supply chains. But if each instance is properly addressed and fixed, then hopefully the prevalence of leakage and the incidence of animal mistreatment should decline.
Will that be enough?
Essentially, it seems that live export will be humane enough for some people, not humane enough for others, and will never be humane in the assessment of animal welfare organisations. The relative proportions of Australians in these three categories will depend not just on the frequency and level of problems, but on the efforts of government and industry to improve animal welfare, and the transparency of their results.
When animal welfare incidents happen, live export industry advocates commonly highlight Australian industry’s efforts to improve animal welfare in destination countries. They point out that other countries’ exporting industries do not have similar programs.
These statements, while legitimate, are unlikely to convince the public to accept the industry in the face of occasional but ongoing incidents.
A more sustainable approach requires not just a stated commitment to improvement, but also transparency of both process and results for animal welfare performance. Both have to be seen to improve. Currently, the public is left with the impression of a repeating story of “We have it all fixed now”, followed by animal welfare activist footage indicating that all is definitely not fixed.
Government support for the live export industry seems firm. The key issues will be improving the welfare of animals and trying to limit the damage to the political capital of not just the live export industry, but also Australia’s livestock farming industries in general.
One day, events may arise that require significant public investment and support. It may be an emergency animal disease, environmental policies, or terms of trade that drastically damage the industry’s viability. It may not be a direct trade-off, but one day Australia’s farmers may need their political capital and the residual goodwill of the Australian public more than they need the live export industry.