THE government’s long-awaited review of the Exporter Supply Chain Assurance System (ESCAS) has been released today, and according to federal Agriculture Minister Barnaby Joyce, it indicates Australia is “a clear world leader in the welfare of exported live animals”.
Mr Joyce said the report contained data which shows more than 99 per cent of livestock exported have experienced a positive welfare outcome since comprehensive welfare standards spanning the entire supply chain were introduced in 2011.
He said it also showed that in nine of Australia’s 18 live export markets there were no incidents that impacted animal welfare.
In the other nine markets, according to the report, the incidents involved an estimated 0.002 to 1.58pc of the animals Australia exported to those markets.
Mr Joyce said the report also showed that since the ESCAS system was introduced, 8,035,633 livestock were exported with just 12,958 animals – or 0.16pc – experiencing a potentially adverse animal welfare outcome.
“These are very strong results that show that the system is working,” he said.
“However, everyone would agree that improving animal welfare outcomes continues to be a challenge.”
According to figures quoted in the report – recorded up to November last year - Australia exported eight million head of livestock to 18 countries in 1139 consignments, with only 22 incidents of animal welfare concern, since ESCAS’s introduction.
“Despite the challenges ESCAS has posed and the need for improvements, it has delivered significant outcomes,” the report’s summary said.
“Trade has continued, when it may have otherwise been limited or even phased out entirely.
“Awareness of animal welfare issues, and of their importance, in livestock handling and slaughter facilities overseas has been improved and ESCAS has provided a valuable source of previously unreported data about the movement and the treatment of animals.
“However, these benefits may also be able to be provided under a more efficient system than the one currently in place.”
Further reform opportunities
The summary cited several opportunities to implement further reforms that would meet ESCAS’s objectives while maintaining animal welfare standards and facilitating trade.
These include clearer guidelines for describing and managing non-compliance and clarifying third-party complaint processes; allowing the sharing of audits for the same facilities or supply chains, which will remove duplication, reduce costs and improve opportunities for co-operation between individual exporters; and recognising opportunities for industry to take greater responsibility for proactively managing the risks within supply chains.
“Implementation of these reforms, along with ongoing evaluation of export processes and identification of further opportunities for improvement may assist the Department of Agriculture to develop a more efficient and cost effective system for ensuring welfare of exported livestock,” the report said.
A controversial system
ESCAS was introduced into Australia’s live animal export markets following the controversial 2011 Indonesian live cattle export ban by the former Labor government.
The initial review of the enhanced animal welfare system was recommended by the extensive farmer inquiry which also resulted from the sudden trade suspension.
Under ESCAS, exporters must establish supply chain arrangements that deliver animal welfare outcomes according to internationally agreed OIE (World Organisation for Animal Health) standards.
The ESCAS review report was originally due to be tabled on September 30 last year after gathering stakeholder feedback, including from animal welfare organisations.
However, its release was delayed due to the volume of collaboration required, in particular with stakeholders in importing countries, to research the first review into the system's effectiveness.
The report said 60 stakeholders from across the supply chain were invited to make submissions during its development, with thirty-six received.
“Views were varied, but the majority of stakeholders said they believe that ESCAS has been a step in the right direction to improve animal welfare,” it said.
“However, opinions differ about whether ESCAS is merely a good first step or has substantially resolved the problems with animal welfare, with the focus now being on continuous improvement and refinement.”
Mr Joyce said since the Coalition government came to office in September 2013 the value of live animal exports has amounted to $1.4 billion and “is continuing to break new ground”.
He said government and industry are continuing to work with the nation’s trading partners to enhance animal handling and husbandry skills and improve animal welfare outcomes and has trained more than 7000 people to date.
“Industry is continually helping to upgrade facilities in-country to meet international animal welfare standards and our shared commitment to this work is ongoing,” he said.
The report said a total of 866 establishments in 19 countries (including facilities in one country yet to receive ESCAS livestock) had been independently audited as being OIE compliant.
It also said the rate of pre-slaughter stunning had increased – citing the example of over 80pc of facilities in Indonesia that now receive pre-slaughter stunning, an Australian cattle processing practice.
The report also said from implementation of ESCAS in 2011 to November 30 last year, there have been 59 incidents of non-compliance with ESCAS requirements confirmed by the Department of Agriculture.
Of those, 47pc were detected by the Department; 31pc self-reported by exporters; and 22pc reported by others.
It also said 37 of those incidents related to issues where there was no direct animal welfare impact “but instead were problems with control, traceability or auditing arrangements”.
“Of these, 23 were for movement of livestock outside the supply chain nominated on the ESCAS paperwork to facilities that have been audited and are OIE compliant, with no compromise of animal welfare,” the report said.
“While ESCAS has done much to improve animal welfare outcomes, it has not meant that every animal has been slaughtered in line with OIE standards.
“Of the millions of animals exported under ESCAS there have been 22 identified incidents of non-compliance where the animal welfare outcome was either adverse or unknown.
“Most of the identified incidents involved multiple animals, up to several thousand in one instance.
“In these cases corrective action has been taken to mitigate against further incidents.”
The report also said extending the government’s regulatory reach internationally through ESCAS “poses challenges for compliance and enforcement”.
“Possible breaches of animal handling standards, reports of improper slaughter techniques and loss of animals from supply chains have been difficult for the Department of Agriculture to investigate,” it said.
“Where breaches can be traced, conditions have been imposed on exporters to mitigate and prevent recurrence within a supply chain.
“The ESCAS framework applies a single consistent system to all importing countries, regardless of the significant differences in terms of species exported, transportation method, seasonality, and demand drivers that apply.
“The ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach of ESCAS does not allow importing countries’ regulations or positive improvements made by exporters or markets to be taken into account.”
Impact on trade
The report also cited concerns that were raised when ESCAS was introduced about its potential impact on trade and opportunities for Australian producers.
It said international trade is affected by numerous factors such as price, exchange rate, competition, market-specific issues, domestic policies and commercial factors.
“Among these factors it is difficult to distinguish the impact ESCAS specifically had on trade,” the report said.
“Cattle exports declined prior to the introduction of ESCAS but rebounded to record levels in 2013–14.
“Total trade volume of sheep has been declining since 2005–06 and has continued to decline following the introduction of ESCAS.
“Some difficulties in maintaining individual markets under ESCAS have been experienced.
“The last consignment to Saudi Arabia occurred in 2012 and it has not been possible to reopen that market under ESCAS,” the report said.
“Conversely, ESCAS has enabled the trade in live sheep to Egypt, which ceased in 2006, to recommence.
“New markets have been opened under ESCAS including Vietnam, Iran, Cambodia, Thailand and Lebanon.
“Despite its successes, the regulatory model for ESCAS is complex and imposes costs of over $17.6 million a year on government and the industry.
“The question remains whether the same gains in animal welfare could have been made through a simpler, clearer and ultimately cheaper system.”
End the misleading attacks: Joyce
Mr Joyce said recommendations from the ESCAS report would support continual animal welfare improvement in the nation’s live export industries.
“What this review clearly demonstrates is that Australian livestock exported overseas are treated humanely in almost every instance and in accordance with international animal welfare standards,” he said.
“With that in mind, critics of the live export trade should end irrational and misleading attacks on importing countries that welcome Australian cattle and sheep, and who rely on Australia as an important source of high quality, reliable and safe protein.
“This industry is directly improving returns at the farmgate through increased domestic competition – indeed the record prices we are seeing in saleyards across the country right now can at least in part be attributed to the strong demand from our live export markets.
“The Australian Government made a commitment to reduce red tape for primary producers.
“Now that we know that the ESCAS system is effective, the government will work to ensure it is delivered as efficiently as possible,” he said.
“Based on the recommendations from this report, we will examine opportunities to implement clearer compliance guidelines, remove duplication of audit activities and introduce greater industry responsibility for risk management.
“The Coalition government is fully committed to the trade and I am proud of the fact that since we have been in office we have opened six new markets for live cattle and sheep – Egypt, Bahrain, Iran, Cambodia, Thailand and Lebanon – and we are intent on continuing that trend.”
ESCAS was 'bold move': Crean
The Australian Livestock Exporters’ Council (ALEC) welcomed the government’s report into ESCAS and the significant improvements to the welfare of Australian exported livestock and local livestock in export markets.
According to chairman of ALEC Simon Crean, in just two years of full ESCAS application the Australian livestock export trade has made huge inroads into improving animal welfare outcomes and placed the trade on a stronger footing to support its ongoing vital economic and job-sustaining role in regional Australia.
“In 2011, the industry was in a difficult and dark place and facing its greatest challenge yet. The implementation of ESCAS – a world first attempt to manage the welfare of exported livestock along supply chains beyond our borders where significant welfare issues had been identified – was a bold move by the then government and an incredible test of live exporters relationship with downstream customers,” Mr Crean said.
Cattle Council of Australia president Howard Smith agreed that ESCAS was a courageous plan: “The initial implementation of ESCAS, in reaction to appalling animal handling of cattle in Indonesia, seemed tough, but when you look at the overwhelming improvements of conditions for Australian cattle in market, it was a necessary step.”
In everybody's interests: NFF
National Farmers Federation (NFF) president Brent Finlay said the federal government’s ESCAS report showed that while the system is not without fault, it has achieved remarkable improvements in animal welfare in a short time.
“No-one wants animals to suffer and it’s in everybody’s interest that community expectations around animal welfare are met,” he said.
According to Mr Finlay, more than 100 countries export livestock around the world, but Australia is the only livestock exporting nation that regulates animal welfare standards throughout the entire supply chain, “all the way across the oceans”.
“Australia is also the only one investing in delivering animal welfare skills to people working in the supply chain,” he said.
“Live export supply chain participants have worked tirelessly to meet the standards that have been set.”
Sheepmeat Council of Australia (SCA) president Jeff Murray also acknowledged the importance of the live export trade to Australian producers.
“The live sheep export trade is essential to the livelihoods of thousands of Australian sheep meat producers. Through ESCAS and the work of the industry, the regulatory system has ensured the continuation of the trade across many international markets, which is good for our producers who rely on market competition and diversity to drive higher farmgate returns,” he said.
The full report is available online.