I have had a 15 year involvement in and around the live export trade throughout Asia. In that time, I have seen animal welfare standards as bad as that depicted on 4 Corners right through to an Australian/United States standard (which exceeds OIE welfare guidelines).
What was depicted in the 4 Corners report must be condemned and cannot be allowed to continue. In my experience these animal welfare outcomes occur in smaller regional type facilities, and are certainly not typical of the standards in the modern professional abattoir operations that service the Indonesian feedlotting sector that utilizes Australian cattle.
Previously, I was employed by a large Indonesian feedlotting and meat processing company. From at least the year 2000, the abattoir operated by this company adopted USDA standards including full stunning prior to slaughter. At the time, this company was a market leader but these practices have been rapidly adopted by competitors for reasons including animal welfare, increased productivity and the ability to service higher value markets (animals slaughtered in minimum stress environments have far superior eating qualities).
It is my experience the potential for negative animal welfare outcomes at point of slaughter are far lower where there is not a religious ritual requirement involved. The issue in countries where there is a religious ritual aspect is that there is a great deal of subjectivity in the interpretation of religious requirements.
I believe the solution to the current concerns in regard to cattle is probably the type of system that has suggested by industry, where specific abattoirs are accredited to an agreed and accepted standard, and an individual traceability system such as NLIS is used.
In regard to this particular term of reference it is important to separate cattle from sheep and goats, and also individual markets.
A major contributor to the welfare problems identified in the 4 Corners report are the sheer size of the finished Australian cattle (as compared to local Asian cattle) at time of slaughter. In this environment, slaughtermen are fearful for their safety and therefore were unable to competently kill the animals in a competent and humane manner.
This is not the situation with sheep and goats which at time of slaughter are between 35 – 50kg. I have observed the slaughter of many sheep and goats in Malaysia and Singapore and have found that the animals were killed very swiftly, competently with a minimum of stress. I am confident that slaughtering practices in these markets meets OIE guidelines at a minimum.
In regard to the appropriateness of OIE guidelines as the minimum standards, I believe any attempt to impose a higher level of standard to soon would be detrimental to Australia’s interest and unachievable in the short term. Australian standards may well be the goal but you won’t achieve them immediately.
The current ASEL standards are more than sufficient. These standards are extremely high (far higher than what is required for the domestic movement of livestock).
There is a great deal of subjectivity in the interpretation of ASEL by various AQIS officers, but this subjective interpretation is overwhelmingly over and above the intent of the standards.
The live export trade is extremely regulated and I would argue that the current level of regulation is more than sufficient. The level of regulation creates significant barriers to entry of ‘cowboys’ leaving a highly proficient and professional sector.
It must be repeated that the standards required far exceed those for the movement of domestic animals which in many cases travel as far if not further than exported animals into South East Asia.
The current standards ensure that only animals that are strong fit and healthy are eligible for export.
I do believe that at least with feeder and slaughter cattle that an individual traceability system is required in Indonesia. The NLIS program in Australia where animals are individually tagged with an electronic ear tag providing individual traceability provides a good platform for an expanded program in overseas markets.
It will be essential over time that any traceability system adopted is common to all exporters, importers and abattoirs. The adoption of multiple or differing systems will inevitably lead to data loss between links in the chain which will undermine the integrity of a central database.
The national NLIS database currently lacks the level of integrity that will be required to ensure compliance in an export situation. This is most likely not the fault of the design of the NLIS database but most likely the fault of poor enforcement practices in Australia.
There are a number of traceability programs available that can provide full traceability, however given the existence of the NLIS database and the resources behind it, it is my view that this is the system that should be used, on the proviso that the export component sits independent to the national database and that there is sufficient resources allocated to ensure that the required level of database integrity is maintained.
Despite the evidence presented in the 4 Corners report, there have been huge increases in the standards of animal welfare in the countries importing Australian livestock. This is particularly the case in the markets where significant scale has been achieved over time. It is simply not commercially feasible to allow the types of abuses depicted in modern, efficient systems. An abattoir accreditation scheme will create the required barriers to entry of the fringe players where the problems almost always occur.
My own exporting business specializes in airfreight of sheep and goats for slaughter in Malaysia, and I don’t believe you will find anyone who could legitimately argue that there are any welfare concerns in the actual export process of our livestock. Due to the nature of this operation, our customers are highly organized with post arrival transport aspects of the operation.
The current regulations we operate under are more than sufficient to ensure animal welfare outcomes to an OIE standard, and it is my view that additional regulation in this sector will do nothing more than destroy the industry for no welfare gains.
In my own slaughter sheep and goat operation we have had no instances of any mortality/morbidity attributable the to the export process. Our customer base is highly professional and given the size of animals at point of slaughter I am highly confident that our processes meet OIE standards at a minimum.