Live exports: What underpins the controversy?

So when you hear the term “live exports”, what do you think of? And are you a supporter, or a non-supporter, or …?

New Zealand is a country that has made a lot of its alleged ban on live exports. In 2003 the Government banned the export of live sheep after a disastrous shipment went wrong and 4000 sheep died en route to Saudi Arabia. The export of live sheep for slaughter was suspended in 2003 and in 2007 the Government introduced a Customs Export Prohibition Order (CEPO) on all livestock for slaughter.

In early 2014, MPI Minister Nathan Guy signed a protocol with the Ministry of Agriculture in Saudi Arabia providing the framework for exports of livestock for breeding purposes. In addition to the specific testing and treatment the livestock must undergo while in New Zealand, the Agreement addresses animal welfare matters upon arrival in Saudi Arabia. 

New Zealand's reputation is too important to allow the export of live sheep for slaughter, according to farming industry leaders.

What many people don’t know is that the biggest animal export is chickens – comprising some 98 per cent of all live animal exports. A mix of day-old chicks and fertilised eggs are among the exports. Big buyers for the 4.7 million chooks sent overseas were New Caledonia, Papua New Guinea, Bangladesh, Solomon Island and Thailand. 

The next most exported animal is cows. Almost all went to China – for breeding purposes. No cattle, sheep, deer or goats for slaughter are exported from New Zealand, under the law.

That’s reassuring – isn’t it?

So you’ve heard the old saying that “there are two sides to every coin”? Start with the reality statement from the Ministry for Primary Industries (“MPI”} webpage: “MPI does not have jurisdiction and cannot require verification of animal welfare after the animals arrive”. According to MPI, “It is in the importer’s best interests that the prime breeding stock remain in excellent condition so they can make a return on their investment. The exporter should provide a report to MPI on how the animals travelled within 20 working days of completion of the voyage. If MPI ever became aware of any information that contradicted information provided by the exporter – either in a voyage report or the stated purpose of the animals – this would be taken into account when applications for future exports are made”. Go back and have a look at the qualifiers in those statements – like the “should” and “if” MPI “ever became aware” of misinformation which would then be “taken into account” in decision making associated with the big business of animal exports worth about $400 million per year.

Still feeling reassured?

To be fair, looking at the other side of the coin must consider the views of those who are not supporters of exporting live animals.

Those opposing live exports say that although the “technical” ban of animals exported for slaughter from New Zealand since 2003, live export for breeding has continued, with the animals ultimately being killed in the country of destination, by methods that could be illegal in New Zealand.

And there’s the argument that for the thousands of live animals exported internationally from New Zealand to China and other countries, the ocean journeys can last several weeks causing distress to the animals as well as creating a huge potential for injury and death. According to opponents of live exports, “Many animals suffer as they struggle to adapt to the conditions and food on board. Some end up getting sick or dying”.

One final query for your consideration. Is it the practice of live exports that’s the issue, or are the conditions associated with live exports the core issue? For example, approximately 900 pregnant ewes were air freighted to Saudi Arabia in October 2014, and reportedly all animals arrived safely and in good health.

So if the animals exported were transported in high standard conditions, and those conditions were not potentially compromised by conflicts of interest and puffery, then what would you think about live exports?

Of course, there's still the question about how to ensure compliance with defined standards of welfare once they reach the importing country. That’s not an impossible task, and the answer goes beyond simplistic statements about “if” the government ever became aware of misreporting – but that’s another discussion.

So with that background, what do you think of the assurances, concerns, and news about a "state of the art" livestock carrier taking 3700 live cattle from New Zealand to China in the article at


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