RSPCA Australia’s call to suspend further live animal exports to Vietnam, pending a review of supply chains approved under the Exporter Supply Chain Assurance System (ESCAS), has been rejected by the federal government.
RSPCA issued a statement today saying the suspension call was warranted, following revelations the live export industry had held an emergency meeting about the Vietnam market’s inability to meet basic World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE) guidelines.
RSPCA’s media statement said despite more than two years having elapsed since ESCAS was required in Vietnam, “the industry has admitted that exported animals are still at risk of horrific cruelty”.
“Reports of cattle being beaten with sledgehammers and exposed to the horrifying act of ‘flooding’, which sees water forced via a hose down the throat in a bid to make them heavier at slaughter, have been confirmed by industry,” RSPCA said in the statement.
Growth of Vietnamese abattoirs
RSPCA chief scientist Dr Bidda Jones said the key problem was that the number of approved abattoirs in Vietnam had grown from zero to 89 in two years since ESCAS was introduced.
She said each new abattoir needed to be rapidly brought up to speed with OIE guidelines with “each one multiplying the risk of non-compliance”.
“In this short space of time there are now more abattoirs processing Australian cattle in Vietnam than there are in Australia,” Dr Jones said.
“If abuse is commonplace in non-approved facilities, it’s ludicrous to suggest that the industry has been able to stamp it out in approved abattoirs.
“It takes far more than an occasional audit and a voluntary training course to permanently change entrenched practices.
“The industry’s trumpeting of the uptake of stunning in Vietnam also needs to be treated with great caution, as ineffective stunning can have appalling outcomes and lead to prolonged animal suffering.”
The RSPCA's key factors for good animal welfare outcomes in slaughter facilities are: enforceable animal welfare legislation; a skilled, trained and permanent workforce; pre-slaughter stunning, and regular auditing against measurable animal welfare standards.
Dr Jones said Australian export abattoirs meet all of those requirements, but “the live export industry continues to push to expand its markets into places where none of these can be guaranteed”.
Welfare system is working: Govt
But the RSPCA’s demand to suspend the Vietnam market was scotched by federal Agriculture Minister Barnaby Joyce and the Australian Livestock Exporters Association (ALEC).
A spokesman for the Minister said the government would not be placing a wholesale suspension on livestock exports to Vietnam.
“This issue seems to be confined to a small region in northern Vietnam only,” the spokesperson said.
“The Department is closely monitoring the situation and is working with industry to ensure any problems are rectified and that the stringent animal welfare standards we require and expect to see are maintained.
“Action on specific supply chains or individual facilities within supply chains will no doubt be taken if necessary.
“However, the fact that exporters and importers have acted so quickly to address these issues shows that the system is working and that when issues arise, they are dealt with quickly and effectively.”
ALEC CEO Alison Penfold said the industry wasn’t trying to hide anything and was openly addressing problems in the Vietnam market.
“We don’t need another repeat of what happened with the Indonesian cattle market in 2011 which did more harm than good,” she said of RSPCA’s suspension request.
“We shouldn’t be punishing everyone with a suspension because overall the supply chains are performing very well in Vietnam and improvements are being made.
“We’re working on this now and we’re heavily committed to sorting this situation out.
“Exporters are in the market now, identifying and isolating facilities and importers and suspending facilities where there’s evidence of any breaches of ESCAS.”
According to figures provided by the Minister’s office, Australia has 56 approved export abattoirs compared to about 80 approved slaughter facilities in Vietnam.
However, in the 2014 calendar year, Vietnam processed 178,156 Australian head of livestock compared to 8,688,659 processed in the Australian abattoirs.
Ms Penfold said the issue wasn’t about the number of abattoirs in Vietnam but about the capacity of those abattoirs to process the number of cattle in the market.
“At the moment there’s a lot of slaughter-ready cattle in the market place and we’re very focussed in expanding abattoir capacity,” she said.
RSPCA claims inaccurate: ALEC
Ms Penfold said the RSPCA’s claim that ESCAS-approved abattoirs weren’t up to OIE standards was inaccurate because facilities are only approved once they meet the required standards.
“The issues of concern are when animals go outside of approved supply chains into other facilities that don’t have access to our training, oversight, infrastructure and equipment,” she said.
The RSPCA’s reaction was sparked by its interpretation of reports on a speech given last week by Ms Penfold at the Northern Beef Producers Forum in Charter Towers, outlining concerns in the Vietnam market.
“I want to be direct and open with you of what practices you will see in local facilities that are not part of ESCAS supply chains,” Ms Penfold said.
“Despite an a government crackdown, cattle are regularly flooded, that is, forced to consume large volumes of water delivered to the rumen by hose several times in the hours prior to slaughter.
“It is done because it is believed that it will add weight to saleable meat but causes horrific impacts on the welfare and health of animals and reduces meat quality and safety.
“Cattle outside of ESCAS supply chains are also likely to be subjected to stunning by sledgehammer.
“Subduing cattle in this manner to make them easier to handle is not intended as a cruel practice but it simply is,” she said.
“Cattle may be repeatedly beaten if the initial stun is ineffective causing severe pain and distress.
“The use of this method of stunning reflects the very basic levels of infrastructure in many family run establishments where slaughter boxes and stunning equipment, even simple cash knockers, are too expensive to purchase.
“Industry sees an opportunity for an international community effort to support welfare improvements in these facilities but we will also work with our own customers in Indonesian to try to facilitate these facilities being upgraded to join ESCAS supply chains.”
Ms Penfold’s speech said she had returned from Vietnam the day before, after attending an emergency meeting where Australian exporters discussed the issue of leakage from supply chains with importers.
“This was a frank, direct and no holds barred discussion on the consequences of failing to meet ESCAS requirements,” she said.
“We strongly reiterated that whatever the drivers are, the rules of ESCAS must be met.
“We outlined the risks and the responsibilities of all concerned to behave to the standards set and to ensure the long term sustainability of the trade.
“Exporters have made it clear that facilities and importers will be suspended for animal welfare abuses and leakage,” she said.
“Re-entry to supply chains will come only after corrective actions are taken and facilities are re-audited. Three times and facilities will be struck out. Australian cattle will not be supplied to facilities that do not meet the standards.”
Supply chains are on notice
Ms Penfold said there was a clear understanding from all in the room that supply chains are on notice that poor behaviour and breaches will not be tolerated.
“There is too much at stake, including millions of dollars in investment, to jeopardise this market in its relative infancy and without it yet to realise its full potential,” she said.
“Wednesday was a clear marker for all of us by which we will hold ourselves to account.”
Ms Penfold wrote to the Department of Agriculture this week outlining the recent meeting in Vietnam and work that’s being done to improve animal welfare standards.
“A key part of this education process - demonstrated in actions agreed to at Wednesday’s meeting - includes the removal of facilities from supply chains when they have been found to be in breach of ESCAS,” she wrote in the letter.
“This course of action has been taken and will be taken by a number of exporters to Vietnam and is a powerful reminder to our Vietnamese customers that failure to meet ESCAS obligations will result in withdrawal of supply.
“We believe that reward for good performance and consequences for poor performance is a strong and appropriate response to secure broader acceptance of higher animal welfare standards.”
Vietnam and ESCAS
A report on ESCAS’s progress released by the federal government earlier this year said in the Vietnam market, exporters and importers are working together and holding industry meetings to address the risk of non-compliance.
It also said Vietnam had emerged as a significant growth market since the introduction of ESCAS, while previously it had only imported small consignments.
“Exports to Vietnam have increased from 945 cattle in 2011–12, to over 130 000 cattle in 2013–14,” the report said.
“The opening of the Vietnamese market also saw increasing buffalo exports, although numbers remain relatively low.”
The report also showed that Vietnam had about 610 livestock affected by ESCAS non-compliance out of the 236,165 exported to the market, or 0.26 per cent.
Overall, since ESCAS was introduced in 2011, the report estimated that 12,958 livestock have been affected by non-compliance out of the 8,035,633 exported to all Australian market, or 0.16pc,
The summary of publicly-released ESCAS investigation report outcomes showed the Department of Agriculture found 96 cattle have been detected outside of approved supply chains and 94 sent to an abattoir not yet approved.