TWO of Saudi Arabia's largest livestock importers have backed Australia's livestock exporters in saying a one-size-fits-all approach to the controversial Exporter Supply Chain Assurance System (ESCAS) does not work.
Travelling with the Saudi Agriculture Minister Dr Fahd Balghunaim during his tour to Australia last week, prominent Saudi livestock importers, Sheikh Suleiman Al Jabri and Sheikh Hamood Al Khalaf, said while they supported the animal welfare outcomes ESCAS delivered, Saudi religious law and cultural values demanded food animals be cared for and processed humanely.
Both importers control a large percentage of the Kingdom's livestock imports
"Importing animals and keeping livestock well fed, watered and in good health and condition is the focus of our businesses in the Kingdom and the measure by which our operations are sustainable," Mr Al Jabri said.
"Why wouldn't we take first class care of our shipments, we pay tens of millions of dollars to bring large consignments from Australia and like your farmers, poor performing animals and mortalities are a cost to the business that we can ill afford."
Australian live exporters have argued since the Bill Farmer Review was released, that the model designed for the Indonesian live cattle trade could not be simply put into Middle Eastern markets.
Mr Al Khalaf agreed and said having imported sheep and cattle from Australia since the 1970s he had experienced the highs of Australian sheep prices as an importer and the lows as a sheep producer.
Mr Al Khalaf owns a number of farms and feedlots in South Australia.
He said he had firsthand experience of the significant decline in sheep and cattle prices to his operation since the introduction of ESCAS.
He said ESCAS had curtailed any hope of him bringing Australian livestock back to Saudi Arabia in the short term.
Mr Khalaf was dismayed at the attitude of the Australian Government saying that it was jeopardising trade relations with major buyers of Australian livestock and forcing them to seek supplies elsewhere in the world when they have a preference for Australian sheep and cattle only.
Saudi Agriculture Minister Dr Fahd Balghunaim admitted last week the country was already sourcing livestock from other countries as a result of Australia's ESCAS.
Both Saudi importers have offices in Australia and have consistently relayed the message back through them saying the ESCAS model is flawed.
"Due to a complete lack of understanding by Australian bureaucrats of the livestock marketing and distribution systems that exist in the Kingdom, if your government truly understood the complexity of our market and the many layers that exist within a supply chain, then they would understand how much effect ESCAS has on an importers' ability to carry out business successfully and profitably," Mr Al Khalaf said.
Mr Al Jabri said it appeared the Australian Government was asking Saudi importers for regulatory accountability that it does not ask of its own producers and abattoirs in Australia.
"Your ESCAS requirement comes at a very heavy cost to our business in Saudi Arabia and if the same was imposed on your producers a similar backlash would be experienced I am sure," he said.
"If Bill Farmer had come to Saudi Arabia in July 2011 as part of his review of Middle East live export markets he would have experienced this first hand.
"Why Bill Farmer did not visit Saudi Arabia when the Australian Government commissioned its Live Export Industry Review midway through 2011 is still perplexing."
Recent statistics show livestock exports to Saudi are well down on previous years.
Federal Agriculture Minister Joe Ludwig has continued to say the downturn was due to rising sheep prices and the high Australian dollar, but Saudi importers disagreed.
They said an investment into larger livestock vessels to suit Australian export standards and delays in construction, along with the availability of other shipping, were the key issues.
This exercise alone was an indication of the country's faith in the Australian livestock market potential with investments of more than $140 million.
Mr Al Jabri and Mr Al Khalaf have both said discussions in Perth last week were cordial but clear.
"The bottom line is there is nothing on the Saudi side preventing livestock trade between us and Australia," Mr Al Jabri said.
"The Saudi Government is particularly proud of the Memorandum of Understanding that exists between the two countries.
"In fact Australia is the only country in the world that such an agreement has been forged with and in combination with the Kingdom being a signatory to OIE, the Saudi government and its importers believe these assurances are pivotal towards reaching an agreement on how best to recommence trade."
WA Livestock Exporters Association (WALEA) chairman John Edwards said it was completely understandable the Saudi Government had reacted with such frankness to ESCAS.
"But what is most disappointing and frustrating is that Australian exporters were advising the government of the same roadblocks existing in the face of any discussion and negotiation on ESCAS for the last 20 months and these have been largely ignored," Mr Edwards said.
"As a result of the joint Saudi Government and business delegation, these issues are now firmly on the table before the Australian Government in the words of the Saudis, so there is no denying (the issues) now."
Mr Edwards said that he hoped the trade impasses were negotiable and considered the first step to be extensive dialogue with the Saudi Government as a means to regaining its confidence in Australia as a reliable and consistent trading partner.
"Saudi Arabia imported eight million sheep, goats, cattle and camels last year from 15 different sources," Mr Edwards said.
"This alone indicates the size of the market and the significant potential it presents for WA sheep and cattle producers.
"With the depressed state of both the sheep and cattle industries, an injection of additional overseas buyers to the marketplace would undoubtedly create increased demand and with it a much needed lift in prices for producers."