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Are live beef exports sustainable?

28th June 2016

After hidden camera footage of cattle being bludgeoned to death with sledgehammers in Vietnamese abattoirs, Australian live exports have been suspended to the culprits by the industry. The graphic footage, captured by activist group Animals Australia was run prominently on ABC’s 7.30 Report. A further negative story involving a whistle-blower vet and graphic images of the miserable conditions on board an apparently compliant export ship, were almost as shocking – presented as they were as “routine” rather than an isolated incident.

The industry’s lobby group Australian Livestock Exporters Council (ALEC) argued that the vet story was old news and the images out of date, and denying the industry had anything to do with vet Dr Lynne Simpson losing her job after her report to a government committee was made public. Simpson claims she was told by her employer, the Department of Agriculture that the industry “couldn’t work with her”. ALEC also vowed to implement additional measures to tighten Vietnamese supply chain controls.

If it feels a little like ground hog day – it’s because we’ve been down this road before. Animals Australia released hidden camera footage from Indonesian abattoirs back in 2011, which led to the Labor government banning live exports for a month. This time the mid-election campaign political response was different; Labor called for an independent office of Animal Welfare to be established while the Coalition has pledged $8.3 million in funding for the industry’s Livestock Global Assurance Program (LGAP) – an animal welfare conformity and certification program developed by the industry, designed to provide assurances that animals are treated in accordance with the industry’s Exporter Supply Chain Assurance System (ESCAS).

While in 2011 the industry seemed largely unprepared for the community outrage and political response to images of cruelty, this time ALEC in particular were much better prepared.  They were quick to step up, condemning the practice, implementing a self-imposed ban, and quickly listing the changes to be made in Vietnam, a market it has described as having “growing pains”. There is no doubt the industry has worked hard to address its systems and minimize animal cruelty – but realistically how feasible is it to change practices in countries outside Australia’s jurisdiction?

In 2014 an independent review of ESCAS, commissioned by the Federal Government found 99.9% of the 8 million livestock exported from Australia between 2012 and 2014 were “handled appropriately through approved supply chains”. Yet some commentators have actually pointed to Australia’s ESCAS, developed to detect non-compliance with Australian animal welfare standards, as the culprit – because it creates the illusion that Australian welfare standards can be enforced outside Australia. Even ALEC has admitted there is “leakage” from the system following this latest incident.

In a way, the fact that the industry has worked so hard – and still these incidents arise – that calls the sustainability of this trade into question. Welfare standards have undoubtedly improved since 2011, as the industry has invested in infrastructure and training to improve slaughtering methods. However, it’s perhaps even more damning from the community’s perspective have been the images on board ship, with cattle covered in faeces, injured and crowded – that according to the 7.30 Report story were compliant with the industry’s standards. It would make anybody wonder if there is any way such a journey could be anything but arduous and stressful for the animals?

It’s difficult to find fault with the Australian live beef export industry’s significant efforts to ensure welfare standards right through to overseas consumer – but will its work ever be done? With these challenges, on top of the political uncertainty that dogs the trade in key markets, the sustainability of this trade must be questioned.