A NEW assurance program could be the answer to opening up the live sheep export trade to Saudi Arabia.
Known as the Livestock Global Assurance Program (LGAP), it has the potential to bring an end to the stalemate Australia's government has with Saudi, which refuses to embrace the Export Supply Chain Assurance System (ESCAS).
The Schuster Consulting Group is the leading research group behind the joint research project and its consultant Peter Schuster says it is focused on developing a global conformity assessment program that protects the welfare of animals and fosters continual improvements and best practice.
The animal export sector has been working with other industry groups to develop an alternative system to the ESCAS, to overcome some exporter nations' reluctance to have a Australian government regulations imposed in their country.
LGAP could shift some of the compliance burden from exporters to importers, and build in a continuous compliance testing system at overseas market facilities.
LGAP trials are soon to commence, prompting hope that it could operate across all of Australia's live export markets, not just in Saudi Arabia.
"The obvious question for WA is: is this program going to provide a solution to open Saudi?" Mr Schuster said.
"What we are providing is a mechanism that is international in its application, at arm's length of industry, and independent of government.
"I believe it could open up Saudi.
"If that is enough for Saudi to say 'ok, ESCAS is an Australian government regulatory framework' and see that as a sovereign imposition, this program will not.
"This will be an independent program.''
Mr Schuster said whether Saudi facilities could conform with LGAP principles was another issue, but the program would provide a mechanism that is independent of government and allow facilities to demonstrate they can conform to international requirements set by the World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE).
"It may allow Saudi to demonstrate a satisfactory standard of animal welfare, equal to ESCAS, which then allows them to receive Australian sheep," he said.
Australian Livestock Exporters' Council (ALEC) chief executive officer Alison Penfold said the system would give the Australian livestock industry more options.
"Australia has always relied on ESCAS to ensure the continuation of trade," she said.
"But this could provide more market options for all Australia's live export markets, not just Saudi."
Mr Schuster said the difference in the programs is that it's up to supply chains to demonstrate compliance with ESCAS, and how they do that is managed by the supply chain.
LGAP would be independent.
"LGAP is a more 'normal' application of a conformity assessment program," he said.
"At the end of the day, what the government is seeking is assurance that animals are being treated well - that's fair.
"What we are providing is a regulatory enabler, which has far more immediate consequences and requirements for facilities in markets, rather than having the whole onus on the exporter.
"The responsibility will be shared, through LGAP, far more immediately by the facilities, so that's one of the fundamental differences."
Mr Schuster said if the facility breach LGAP requirements, it would feel the consequences.
Under ESCAS there is no formalised way of checking for breaches by a facility.
"Those exporters who are doing it well, it's working for them, for those who aren't it is open to abuse," he said.
"According to the rules of the LGAP program, they will be required to undertake particular monitoring tasks on an ordered frequency, so it will be prescribed.
"It depends on whether they are high, medium or low risk - they will have to undertake particular tasks on a recurring basis and if they don't do that it will come up in the IT system as a non-conformity and they will have to correct that.''
Mr Schuster said China could also operate under LGAP.
"China see an element of being told what to do by the Australian government with ESCAS, so they could be another potential market," Mr Schuster said.
"Russia is another example.
"It gives us more opportunities and safeguards the future of the industry."
The pilot program, led by ALEC, Meat and Livestock Australia and LiveCorp, is expected to run until November, and the research outcomes will be reported to industry in March.
Kalyeeda station owner Peter Camp, Fitzroy Crossing, said the LGAP could benefit industry.
"ESCAS can seem a little confronting for some of our new markets," he said.
"So this could be a good alternative for them.
"In my personal opinion LGAP seems more user friendly."
Mr Camp said with the current system there is a lot of pressure on Australian exporters to get it right.
"I think it takes some pressure off the exporter and makes the importer step up to the plate as well, I think that could be good," he said.
"There is a lot of emphasis on the exporter to make sure, right through to the point of slaughter, it's ok, which is a big ask.
"One would hope LGAP would be a bit more user friendly for the exporter and importer."