Coverage of LiveCorp‚Äôs testimony at the recent Senate Estimates hearings has encouraged the live export industry to ‚Äúbrag more often‚Äù about its purported contribution to improving animal welfare standards globally.
The choice of words by Senator Sterle was perhaps appropriate, for the meaning of the term ‚Äúbrag‚Äù is ‚Äúto boast, or to speak with exaggeration.‚Äù
This is precisely what LiveCorp chairman David Galvin did as he read out his list of industry achievements.
Mr Galvin did not, however, paint a picture of smooth live ex sailing all the way. He acknowledged the trade had experienced ‚Äúsetbacks‚Äù through ‚Äúhuman error‚Äù and ‚Äúsome untoward practices‚Äù.
Before the industry gets too carried away with its bragging, it might be helpful to remind ourselves of the nature of these ‚Äúsetbacks‚Äù and to consider the veracity of the claimed improvements.
The fact is, the history of the live trade is marked by a litany of disasters, both at sea and in the importing countries.
In total, over 2.5 million animals have died on the voyages alone over the past 30 years. Most of these deaths have been attributed to heat stress caused by a combination of high stocking densities, poor ventilation, and extreme climatic conditions, and inanition due to difficulties in adapting to changes in feed.
Since 2006, reportable mortality rates for sheep (2%) and cattle (1%) have been exceeded on 49 separate occasions, or once every two months.
Recent events do not indicate any sign of these incidents abating.
In September 2013, 4,179 sheep perished from heat stress en route to Qatar, and just last month, 1,654 sheep died following mechanical issues aboard the MV Ocean Drover.
Behind each number in the Department of Agriculture mortality reports is an animal that has endured horrific suffering.
Heat stress is by all accounts a slow and agonising way to die.
It is also important to note, that even when everything goes according to plan, animals still suffer the stress and distress of long distance transport.
Contrary to what the live export industry would like people to believe, simply because an animal does not die during the voyage, does not mean it had a pleasant trip.
Recent scientific evidence has detailed the inherent welfare issues associated with the conditions under which animals are exported.
For those animals that survive the journeys, the fate awaiting them in importing countries is uncertain.
In only the past two years, there have been 28 reported breaches of the Exporter Supply Chain Assurance System (ESCAS) and the Australian Standards for the Export of Livestock (ASEL).
Some notable examples include the 20,000 Australian sheep that were brutally slaughtered by Pakistan authorities in September 2012 after they were rejected for health concerns by Bahrain.
In June and October 2013, Animals Australia reported thousands of Australian sheep being sold outside of approved supply chains in Jordan. Video footage depicted Australian sheep having their throats hacked with blunt knives on the streets during the Festival of Sacrifice.
In December 2013, the public was again shocked as footage of Australian cattle being tormented in streets of Gaza by frenzied mobs emerged. Cattle were shown being roped and wrestled to the ground, stabbed in the face and throat, shot at with assault rifles, and having their throats clumsily sawn open to the delight of cheering crowds.
These incidents and mortality events are not ‚Äúsetbacks.‚Äù
They are not unforeseeable or isolated.
They are an inevitable feature of the trade.
The industry‚Äôs claims of welfare improvements must be considered against this backdrop.
The Senate hearing involved a lot of talk about ‚Äúexporting best practice animal welfare‚Äù but there was little in the way of tangible evidence of improved welfare outcomes on the ground.
Increases in the uptake of stunning in Indonesian abattoirs appeared to be the only example.
Training in animal welfare and investment in R&D are welcome but their worth must be demonstrated through measurement of practical outcomes that reduce animal suffering.
Let us also remember that the claimed improvements have not occurred through the goodwill of the industry itself but by the sustained pressure and scrutiny of animal welfare organisations, the media, and concerned members of the public.
Only when its back was against the wall and facing national public condemnation following the 2011 Four Corners‚Äô expos√© on the horrific treatment of Australian cattle in Indonesia, did the industry finally make progress on implementing stunning in Indonesia.
The live export industry‚Äôs agenda in highlighting animal welfare issues is clear. It is an attempt to undermine the very basis upon which the trade‚Äôs existence is challenged, but it will not wash with the Australian public. The hypocrisy is simply too great.
The fact of the matter is that Australia can contribute to improving animal welfare standards within the region without having to participate in the live trade.
The provision of technical assistance and tied foreign aid, and greater investment in relevant programs of the World Organisation for Animal Health and international animal welfare NGOs, provide greater opportunities to achieve longer-term and wider-reaching impacts.
These initiatives would enable Australia to contribute to lifting animal welfare standards around the globe without harming animals in the process.
Now that would be something to brag about.
- Heather Neil