ANIMALS Australia says the Egyptian vet central to animal cruelty allegations which halted the Australian cattle trade to that market last May, was threatened for bringing evidence to the activist group’s attention.
The Department of Agriculture’s 10-month investigation was handed down this month but failed to resolve lingering questions about the vet’s actions and origins of the video footage he handed to Animals Australia.
When the controversy first erupted, Australian Livestock Exporters’ Council chief executive officer Alison Penfold said the vet was employed to oversee animal welfare at the Ain Sokhna abattoir but stood back while the “horrific” acts took place which appeared in the video footage, making no attempt to intervene.
At the time, Egypt’s Ambassador to Australia Dr Hassan El-Laithy said the footage which was shown on ABC TV may have been filmed as far back as 2009.
Dr El-Laithy said there were also claims from some Egyptian officials that the video footage could be linked to “interests within the meat trade that would like to see alternative markets, such as Australia, excluded completely”.
He said the key question was, “if this was a matter of animal welfare, why was the footage withheld?”
“For those whose intention is to achieve a higher standard of animal welfare, it would have been better for this footage to have come forward earlier,” he said.
The vet was interviewed as part of Animals Australia’s investigation and said an abattoir worker and veterinarian took the video footage, “purely for their own amusement and that of others”.
The Department said it received reports the vet had “a number of commercial conflicts of interest” with respect to both the Ismailia and Ain Sokhna abattoirs “that may have influenced the allegations of animal welfare abuse made in his interview”.
The vet’s allegations and that of an abattoir worker were investigated by the Department, based on interview transcripts. But the report said specific allegations about the failings of restraint boxes used at the Ismailia abattoir “could not be substantiated”.
“The Department made a number of attempts to contact the veterinarian and seek further information about the complaint but did not receive a response from the veterinarian,” the report said.
Animals Australia spokesperson Lisa Chalk said after being threatened, it was “entirely understandable” that the Egyptian vet was “reticent to put his family at further risk when the Department had the information they needed to underpin their investigation”.
“Those who have suggested that he was motivated by commercial reasons should hang their head in shame,” he said.
“This vet should be applauded for having the courage to expose the abuse of Australian cattle so that it could be addressed - instead it became the sole goal of some to destroy his reputation.
“It is their motivation that should be questioned, not the Egyptian vet's.”
Western Australian Liberal Senator and former veterinarian Chris Back also expressed disappointment the Department’s investigation failed to resolve key questions about the vet’s alleged links to the video and an ongoing trade dispute over hormone growth promotants (HGPs) in Australian cattle.
While industry imposed a voluntary trade suspension last May, live trade with Egypt had been in hiatus since August 2012 when Egypt advised that imported cattle couldn’t be treated with HGPs.
At recent Senate estimates hearings, Senator Back questioned the vet’s role in first raising the HGP issue in Egypt in July 2012 - when there was no restriction on HGPs for Australian cattle sold into the $25 million per year Egyptian market.
Federal Agriculture Minister Barnaby Joyce declined to comment on the unresolved questions about the vet’s alleged involvement in potential commercial sabotage.
“Rather than getting caught in the prickles of whether that is the case or not the case I’m just happy that the trade is up and running again,” he said.
Mr Joyce was also reluctant to say whether the Department’s investigation processes needed to be changed or given more powers to resolve such issues.
“I will deal with issues as they come before me and if further investigations are needed then we are always prepared to take them on, but we’ve got to look at the bigger picture,” he said.
“We know the job that we’ve got to do to improve welfare to earn the trust of the Australian public and that’s the job we’re on at the moment.”
Ms Penfold said the government’s move to adopt ESCAS in Egypt and gain clarity around “HGP freedom” allowed industry to move forward, based on the Minister’s decision.
She said ongoing consultation and discussions between Australian and Egyptian governments and industry had helped reach an agreement to support HGP-free cattle going into the Egyptian market.
She also expressed confidence that Australia would be able to supply enough HGP-free cattle to fill demand in Egypt.
Animals Australia did not respond to a request to provide proof of any threats against the vet. Dr El-Laithy was also contacted for further comment and is considering his response after reviewing the Department’s report.