THE Department of Agriculture is investigating a raft of new allegations of non-compliance with Australia’s animal welfare regulatory system for cattle sold into the Vietnam and Thailand live export markets.
However, Federal Agriculture Minister Barnaby Joyce has rejected suggestions the Exporter Supply Chain Assurance System (ESCAS) is failing to achieve outcomes that meet community expectations of animal welfare, saying it would “oxymoronic” to end the trade.
In the past six weeks, the Department has posted seven reports notifying the start of investigations of ESCAS into non-compliance for cattle exported into the two markets, from self-reports and industry reports.
The news comes after recent criticism of excessive supply chain leakages in the northern Vietnam market, including cross-border black market trade into China to obtain higher prices.
That has reignited concerns about potentially poor outcomes for exported Australian cattle in overseas markets. It has also renewed calls from the RSPCA and the Greens, amongst others, to ban live trade and move to more onshore processing and boxed or frozen meat exports.
Animals Australia has cited concerns about cattle being beaten with sledgehammers in Vietnam outside of ESCAS supply chains.
But some industry members have stressed images used in the activists’ campaign show a slaughterman’s hammer being used, which is considered a more humane method of slaughter than other practices.
Animals Australia and the RSPCA also want live exports shut down and fear the Department is continuing to grant export permits for Vietnam and Malaysia while the government admits failures with ESCAS standards, in those markets.
“ESCAS really has become a laughing stock,” Animals Australia spokesperson Lisa Chalk said.
“I’m not sure what the difference is between ‘self-report’ and ‘industry report’ but I think it’s probably companies reporting breaches involving other exporters.”
Ms Chalk said a mechanism was needed to ensure reports of ESCAS breaches are also sent to industry bodies and not just the Department, “otherwise cattle producers would never be made aware that issues are ongoing”.
An exporter self-report of ESCAS non-compliance dated June 22 was on loss of control for cattle exported to Thailand, saying 61 head were moved from an approved feedlot to two unapproved abattoirs and slaughtered with stunning.
“There is no suggestion of adverse animal welfare outcomes,” it said.
Another industry self-report of non-compliance with ESCAS from June 19 cited failure to meet requirements for cattle exported to Vietnam, with animals sighted outside the approved supply chain with potential adverse animal welfare outcomes.
Speaking at the National Press Club this week about the incidents, Mr Joyce said reports of ESCAS non-compliance in northern Vietnam came from industry, not from animal liberationists, “which actually shows the ESCAS system is working because the industry itself has reported on that”.
He said an audit of the system showed there had been 12,000 issues relating to over 8 million head of cattle (exported) representing about 98-99 per cent compliance.
“No-one wants the barbaric treatment of animals,” he said.
“That's why Australia has the ESCAS system and I commend the work that the previous government did towards that.
“But to say the solution to Australia's ESCAS system, which is the only nation on earth that has one, is to remove Australia ... it's just oxymoronic.
"There's over 100 nations on earth that do live export ... to remove the only nation that's actually trying to make things better, to be left with all the nations who are doing nothing ... is oxymoronic.”
Mr Joyce was speaking about the launch of the Abbott government’s Agricultural Competitiveness White Paper, four years to the day that live cattle exports to Indonesia re-opened, under the ESCAS arrangements, designed rapidly following the then Gillard government’s controversial suspension that’s now subject to a class action claim from industry, against the Commonwealth, that could potentially hit $1 billion.
Mr Joyce said he had spoken to exporters about improving animal welfare standards and becoming more selective about where animals are sent to.
“The good thing about it is, people who make money don't want to lose that trade,” he said.
“And why it's so important to Australia is this: we need to keep competition otherwise they're going to end up with a very big JBS.
“We have to have someone else there in that market place, so they're paying an honest price.
“Live trade is vastly less than 10 per cent of our cattle, of our meat sales, but it's a very important section.”
Mr Joyce said a view, “strongly held by both sides of the political fence” was that governments would not shut down the live export trade again.
“We are not going to do that again,” he said.
“We're going to make the system work better if we have to, we're going to be diligent, but we are not going to go backwards.”
In response to concerns about supply chain leakages in the Vietnam market, industry has introduced tighter control measures including installing CCTV facilities in ESCAS approved abattoirs.
Animals Australia strategy director Rohan Wenn said the Minister’s insistence that ESCAS was working "doesn’t make it so and is ludicrous in light of three further reports of ESCAS breaches in Vietnam in June".
“If Australian cattle continually facing being sledge-hammered to death is a system 'working', I hate to think what scale of abuse needs to be inflicted before the government admits that it’s not," he said.
“At least deal with this situation frankly and admit that commercial interests are being prioritised over animal welfare.
“How else can you explain continuing to send thousands of Australian cattle into Vietnam while this situation remains out of control?”