Live Animal Export Opinion Piece By Sentient

"Cruelty must be whitewashed by a moral excuse, and pretense of reluctance”. Had George Bernard Shaw been witness to Australia’s thirty year trade in live animal export, he would have found abundant examples of both. Now is the time to expose the falsifications used by government, industry, and disappointingly, even certain members of the veterinary profession, to justify and maintain a trade that is inherently fraught with serious animal welfare risks at all stages.


Sentient, The Veterinary Institute for Animal Ethics, is fundamentally opposed to live animal export due to the unacceptable suffering of large numbers of animals involved. We wish to offer a uniquely independent veterinary perspective on this trade and to express regret for the apparent silence of our profession in advocating for the welfare of those animals.

In May 2011, ABC’s Four Corners program broadcast footage depicting horrific slaughtering practices in thirteen Indonesian abattoirs. In response, the government opened the Independent Review of Australia’s Livestock Export Trade, conducted by Bill Farmer, and referred the matter to the Senate Standing Committees on Rural Affairs and Transport. The purpose of these inquiries was to investigate the effectiveness of The Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry (DAFF), Meat and Livestock Australia (MLA), LiveCorp and other relevant industry bodies in improving animal welfare standards in Australia’s live export markets. Their recommendations were released in August and November 2011 respectively, although the Australian government’s reforms to the trade were announced on 21October 2011, based largely on the outcome of the Farmer Review.

So what were the reactions to this renewed scrutiny of the live export trade? From those with vested interests, widespread denial and minimisation. Transcripts of the inquiry hearings contain evidence from numerous producers, livestock agents, exporters and industry officials, maintaining they have never witnessed the cruelty depicted by Four Corners, which must therefore be the exception. Mr Lach Mackinnon, Chief Executive Officer of Livestock Exporter’s Council, advised the Senate committee that “he has visited Indonesian abattoirs, including abattoirs filmed by Four Corners on a number of occasions, both announced and unannounced, and has never witnessed the treatment of animals shown in the program". He was, however, unable to explain why this would be the case. Emeritus Professor of Veterinary Science Ivan Caple and WA Liberal Senator Chris Back, a veterinarian previously employed within the industry, went further, with unsubstantiated accusations that the footage was fabricated and solicited.

Equally concerning were misleading interpretations of the footage by industry veterinarians. Chris Back challenged the opinion of Dr Temple Grandin, Professor of Animal Science at Colorado State University and acknowledged world expert on humane slaughter, that an individual steer seen to be shaking while observing the slaughter and skinning of other animals was demonstrating a fear response. Instead, he ‘diagnosed’ the steer with transit tetany, a metabolic condition. We in turn challenge his conclusion; transit tetany typically occurs after prolonged transportation of cows in late pregnancy. Although it can occur in steers, this individual exhibited no other signs such as restlessness, staggering or frothing at the mouth. His prolonged lowered head posture, however, is one associated with extreme distress. We concur with Grandin’s explanation and note that this steer’s response would be exacerbated by the known temperament of Bos indicus cattle, who cope particularly poorly with stressful situations.

What the Four Corners footage demonstrates is that, despite eighteen years of attempted improvements, government and industry have failed to raise animal welfare standards to acceptable levels in Indonesia. We propose that this has been due to collusion between the two, from which arises a lack of transparency, independence in monitoring and enforcing of standards. It emerged from the Senate hearing that a report critical of slaughter processes in Indonesia was submitted a year ago, yet the Australian government took no action. The joint submission by MLA and LiveCorp contained admissions, couched in euphemistic terms, of their awareness of ‘"significant shortcomings in animal welfare within the Indonesian market’", the need for improvement in the abattoirs having been identified in the late 1990s. Their justification? That they "have never claimed that animal welfare practices in overseas markets are sufficient or that OIE standards are consistently met......Our aim has been to continually and incrementally improve animal welfare practices so that over time the practices would reach acceptable levels and that OIE standards would be met."

The Australian Beef Association (ABA), in their submission, described how MLA, peak councils, and the Red Meat Advisory Council, all failed to act on their awareness of unacceptable treatment of Australian livestock due to the industry structure being a ‘closed loop’. The ABA identified an alarming level of industry whitewashing, accusing the peak bodies of misleading producers, the public and the Government, and claiming that, "instead of addressing the cruelty issue directly and admitting their initiatives had failed, they collectively chose to bury the issue with public relations and pretend it was not happening." Likewise, the Australian Meat Producers Group (AMPG) described how MLA have adopted a “marketing” approach to animal welfare, and expressed concern about structural flaws in the operations of MLA, LiveCorp and other relevant industry bodies, which have led to their failure of duty to the industry.

Not surprisingly, the Senate committee concluded that they were satisfied that MLA, LiveCorp and other peak bodies were aware of the animal welfare situation in Indonesia, and furthermore, that the number of industry driven reviews and reports highlighting this situation “casts a cloud over the efforts of peak bodies to facilitate improved welfare outcomes”. 

So why should we continue to entrust the welfare of Australian livestock to the machinations of government and industry bodies whose overall performance has been characterised by incompetence, negligence, and dishonesty? It appears highly inconsistent and something of a travesty that the Senate committee, despite its findings, has recommended that rather than ending live export, “Australia's active involvement in the live animal export trade puts it in a much better position to act as an agent of change”. DAFF has consistently championed Australia’s involvement in the live export trade, and our AusAID program, which last year contributed 580 million dollars towards Indonesia, as avenues to influence change. But what of this ‘teaching role’, promoted almost as a moral imperative - at best patronising, and at worst, another example of industry abjuration? And how much leverage can we have to instill a fundamental appreciation of animal welfare issues and compliance with OIE recommendations when dealing with another sovereign nation that lacks even basic animal welfare legislation? Should the burden of this role really be inflicted upon Australian cattle?

Such doubts are confirmed by evidence presented to the Senate committee, who acknowledged the significant challenges to improving animal welfare posed in Indonesia due to “the prevalence of traditional slaughter practices and the lack of an educated workforce, limited understanding of animal handling techniques and the great variability in the availability of both capital and infrastructure”. MLA have themselves identified that "due to the enormous turnover of people in the slaughter teams and their relatively low social status, it is not a good strategy to invest in training personnel in animal handling practices at this level.”

Despite this, MLA and LiveCorp argued for continuing the agreed strategy between industry and government of ‘incremental and    progressive change’ to improve animal welfare. We submit that the opportunity to protect Australian livestock from another eighteen years of the benefits of such ‘change’ was squandered by both recent inquiries. The Farmer Review did not even include a phasing out of live export in its terms of reference. The Senate committee’s mantra of ‘"no room for compromise on animal welfare" is belied by its focus on economics and its recommendation  against passing the Live Animal Export (Slaughter) Prohibition Bill 2011 [No. 2], proposed by the Greens to cease the trade immediately, and the Live Animal Export Restriction and Prohibition Bill 2011 [No. 2], proposed by the Independents Andrew Wilkie MP and Senator Nick Xenaphon, to restrict and eventually ban the trade from 2014. Both bills were defeated in Federal Parliament.

Instead, the government has preserved the status quo of ‘incremental’ change, which until proven otherwise, would most wisely be translated as ‘negligible’. Improvements to the welfare of cattle arising from the recent inquiries depend on a new supply chain assurance framework, expected to be in place in all export markets by the end of 2012. This places the onus on exporters to prove that animals are handled and processed according to OIE (World Organisation for Animal Health) international ‘standards’ for animal welfare, with control of animal movements, traceability and independent auditing throughout the supply chain.

Why then, are animal welfare organisations and other advocates, including Sentient, voicing disappointment regarding the outcome of these inquiries? Surely we can be reassured by the OIE recommendations the government has proposed be met at all stages in the feedlot to abattoir supply chain to ensure appropriate animal welfare standards in Indonesia? The name sounds impressive until it is clarified that these are voluntary and fall far below Australian standards for the slaughter of animals, having been written for developing countries. These recommendations are also overdue for revision. And what does it say of our moral integrity as a nation if we can insist upon humane standards of care for our animals on Australian shores, yet knowingly expose them to brutal treatment in their countries of destination?

Sentient holds grave concerns about OIE recommendations for the slaughter of animals. They allow the use of leg restraints such as rope casting for cattle, breaching Temple Grandin’s mandate for upright restraint and non-slip footing to reduce panic and agitation. As a solution to cattle handling issues at importing abattoirs, Australian industry designed and funded Mark I Restraint Boxes, which force animals to be tripped onto their sides before having their throats cut. The animal’s body weight causes tearing of their restrained leg from the body wall, with severe muscle and joint damage. Concurrent hard, sharp surfaces and loud noises add to the animals' stress. Temple Grandin has described the Mark I boxes as having “breached every humane standard anywhere in the world” and as “unacceptable and absolutely atrocious”.

In an independent review based on video footage, Dr Mark Schipp, the Acting Australian Chief Veterinary Officer (CVO), rated the ongoing use of Mark I Restraint Boxes as inappropriate and falling short of some elements of the OIE recommendations, which were developed later. The Mark IV boxes generally complied with these, although he noted “Even with suitable equipment, poor animal welfare outcomes can result from lack of slaughterman competency in animal slaughtering and inadequate operational procedures.” In response to the CVO’s evaluation, the Australian government has banned the installation of any further Mark I boxes. The Senate committee welcomed this ban and acknowledged the Mark IV box as a significant improvement. As the CVO observed, however, it is not clear that performance standards have been developed for the use of Mark IV restraint boxes, so the committee recommended that MLA and LiveCorp develop and implement such standards as required under the OIE code, to be routinely assessed by the CVO. This recommendation places great faith in the industry bodies who initially designed the inhumane Mark I boxes and who demonstrated gross failure in their duty to monitor and improve animal welfare in the Indonesian market. The committee also acknowledged that the deployment of Mark IV boxes to date has been hindered by their greater sophistication, and were advised by DAFF in 2011 that these boxes could not be installed in many areas where Mark I boxes are currently in use due to the lack of powered mechanisms such as hydraulics.

Nor do the OIE recommendations require even the most basic welfare safeguard, to have animals slaughtered humanely by means of pre-slaughter stunning. This is vital to render them unconscious to pain before full frontal throat cutting and bleeding. Stunning was dismissed by the Farmer Review as merely a 'suggestion'. The government’s response to this review to “further its commitment to increasing the use of stunning” by raising the issue for inclusion in the OIE guidelines, and to support industry efforts to include stunning in voluntary codes of conduct, offers slim hope of change. The Senate committee did not include stunning in their recommendations, and only went as far as considering that “Australian exporters should work toward the acceptance of stunning as best practice in Australia's live export supply chains”. They cited the conclusion of a recent independent study of animal welfare in Indonesia that “stunning delivered the single biggest animal welfare benefit”; whilst the review panel of this study recommended stunning in general, they noted the adoption of the required technology in most facilities is infeasible. Once again, economic factors remain unchallenged in holding more sway than best practice in animal welfare.

To date, approximately 90 percent of cattle slaughtered in Indonesia are not stunned, and the Australian government has not made this a requirement for the resumption of trade with Indonesia. This is inconsistent with The Australian Model Codes of Practice, which although not uniformly adopted, specify that it is unacceptable to slaughter any animal at an abattoir unless it is pre-stunned. Furthermore, Islamic and Jewish leaders in Australia and Indonesia have expressed acceptance of pre-slaughter stunning during ritual slaughter for both domestic consumption and live export, on the grounds that electrical and percussion stunning do not injure the animals and so remain in line with religious requirements.

As for the government’s optimistic gesture towards an 'independent auditing process', is this just another beaurocratic white wash, to be played out in a further round of cover-ups, media exposure and subsequent denials?  One of the key recommendations of the Keniry Report (2003), commissioned in response to the national disgrace of the Cormo Express, was for the presence of ‘third party’ veterinarians onboard export ships to monitor livestock welfare. And yet, the Farmer Review has failed to effectively remedy the conflict of interest whereby exporters continue to contract veterinarians, despite evidence of veterinarians being bullied after reporting animal welfare concerns. Farmer’s recommendations for improving the support and assessment of AQIS-accredited veterinarians, which have been adopted by the government, do not go far enough.

Furthermore, the details of the government’s requirement for ongoing assessment of the supply chain by independent third party auditors are unclear. Who are these proposed independent auditors? Most likely not truly independent veterinarians or representatives from animal welfare organisations. The stated aim is for the use of an animal welfare checklist developed by DAFF to assess compliance with OIE standards. This appears somewhat circular given DAFF’s track record of monitoring animal welfare standards. And yet the matter is crucial, for as the Senate committee note, insufficient monitoring in the past has made it impossible to determine whether the historically incremental approach has achieved sustained change. In their own view, the changes appear minimal “given the significant investment of both financial and physical resources by the Australian Government and peak industry bodies over a considerable period of time”.

And yet, if the live export trade were to end without an appropriate phasing out period, extreme welfare issues for remaining livestock are inevitable. Estimates of twenty per cent increases in stocking density and subsequent ten per cent increases in death rates, largely due to grazing pressure, have been suggested for the Northern Territory. The 1974 beef slump is testament to the further welfare risks posed if cattle were to become so economically unviable that essential husbandry measures, such as feed supplementation and vaccination, are withheld. It is true too that Bos indicus cattle are largely unsuitable for the local market. And although ideal for a relatively ecologically sustainable grazing style, northern Australia cannot fatten cattle to appropriate market weight specifications, thanks in part to irrigation and cropping restrictions under the wild rivers and clearing legislations.

But is this reason enough to continue the industry? The senate report itself acknowledged that northern Australian cattle production is too heavily reliant on the trade, and recent events are testament to its vulnerability. Sentient applauds the Senate inquiry's recommendation that the cattle industry start to seek a more secure basis "through the diversification of market options" such as establishing meat processing facilities proposed for Darwin and Broome. Such a movement would have the potential added benefit, argues The Community and Public Sector Union (CPSU), "to re-enliven Australia's meat processing industry and bring back to regional towns, many of the jobs that have been lost". And for the animals in question? This would mean guaranteed application of Australian welfare standards, including pre-slaughter stunning, which are far superior to OIE recommendations. This can only be a good thing.

Regardless, as a trade that was born and supported by government and industry, we place the onus where it lies to resolve these issues and offer viable alternatives. It is difficult not to concur with the Senate committee, who “cannot help but think that at a fundamental level, Australian cattle producers have been let down by a failure to appreciate the magnitude of the risk posed to the industry if animal welfare issues were not effectively addressed within a reasonable timeframe”. We predict that the tokenistic changes proposed by the government in response to these inquiries will lead to more of the same. Furthermore, they dishonour the concerns of the Australian public about the institutionalized cruelty they have witnessed. As animal advocates, Sentient will continue to promote humane solutions that address the welfare needs of our livestock as a priority, solutions we believe can only be found by a considered and permanent end to the live export trade.

By Sentient Inc

The Veterinary Institute for Animal Ethics       02 4344 9699, PO Box 223, Oatley NSW 2223