AUSTRALIAN livestock exports to Saudi Arabia remain in a state of flux, despite efforts to reopen the potentially lucrative market.
Last week, WA Nationals agricultural region MLC Paul Brown held talks with federal Agriculture Minister Barnaby Joyce in Canberra, calling for a process that would pave the way for an alternative to the Exporter Supply Chain Assurance System (ESCAS).
ESCAS was rapidly introduced in a six-week period following the controversial June 2011 Indonesian live cattle export ban, to implement stricter animal welfare standards and appease community outrage about the trade.
But a report on ESCAS’s performance released by the Abbott government in January this year said the new system affected sheep export volumes at market level.
The report said Australia had not exported any live animals to Saudi Arabia since August 2012 due to that country’s concern that the ESCAS' implementation would impinge upon its sovereignty.
“At its height in 2006, the Saudi Arabian market received nearly 1.2 million Australian sheep per year and smaller numbers of cattle - mostly breeder rather than slaughter animals,” the report said.
“When Australia introduced ESCAS, its sheep exports to Saudi Arabia were already significantly declining, with the increasing value of the Australian dollar reducing the competitiveness of Australian livestock compared to those from northern Africa.”
Industry figures show the Saudi market imported 69,000 head of Australian sheep and 3550 cattle in 2012-13 but nothing in 2011-12.
However, Mr Brown said he believes re-opening the Saudi market could potentially see more than one million head of Australian sheep and 100,000 cattle exported per year.
He also believes opening access to Middle Eastern markets will help relieve pressure on live cattle exports to the Vietnam market which is currently over-supplied, and “leakage” from the ESCAS system seeing cattle sold into China “out the back door”.
But he said that black-market trade is limiting the federal government’s capacity to secure a final agreement on opening trade into China for slaughter and feeder cattle “through the front door”.
Industry sources say Australian cattle are being sold to importers at US$3 per kilogram but can be sold outside of the ESCAS supply chains for double that price, into China.
Mr Brown said he feared many live export companies are too focussed on supplying the Vietnam market, having lost capacity to trade sufficient volumes to the Middle East.
He said he told Mr Joyce that Saudi importers don’t accept the “full suite of ESCAS requirements” in particular stock traceability and independent auditing of supply chain facilities.
But the Saudi government has implemented new animal welfare standards and laws that are aligned to OIE standards which the ESCAS model is based on, he said.
“What I’m proposing, and have done so to Barnaby Joyce on behalf of exporters, to help with re-opening the Saudi market, is a simple modification of the ESCAS system through a trial that would be conducted over one or two years,” he said.
“It’s obviously up to the politicians in Canberra to create the environment that would allow those trials to take place.
“We want to ensure the welfare of all animals leaving Australia going into any market but we also need flexibility in the system to allow those markets to grow.
“We’re not advocating for a lessening of animal welfare standards but what I’m saying is we need to be flexible and modify some of the programs we’ve implemented through ESCAS, to accommodate the individual needs of some of these countries, like Saudi.”
Legislation changes required
Mr Brown said he was told any changes to ESCAS - even for conducting a trial - would require legislative changes.
He urged the Australian Greens and federal Labor to agree to the minor ESCAS modifications to open up the trial and assist producers and industry while helping to create market diversity and sustainability.
“I’m asking the industry’s opponents, who continually say they support farmers and the agricultural industry, to allow these minor modifications to take place for the benefit farmers and Australian farming industries, especially producers here in WA,” he said.
Mr Joyce visited Saudi Arabia in April last year along with key industry representatives to promote Australian farm trade - but little has been said publicly since then about re-opening the Saudi market.
Last week, during a speech in parliament, he said he had spoken to ambassadors from Gulf countries the night before “to make sure that we keep those channels of produce moving”.
Making make sure that free trade agreements are in place, that live animal destinations are open and the Department works diligently, are all part and parcel of what the government does, he said.
Mr Joyce told Fairfax Media the government was continuing to work with the Saudis to reopen the market while maintaining responsibility for high animal welfare standards.
“I’m always looking for other avenues that our nation can earn more money and if we can work towards getting access to the Saudi market, noting that we have an ESCAS system, the protocols in the ESCAS system, what the ESCAS system actually delivers can be seen in that Saudi market, then of course I would want our nation to earn money from that market,” he said.
“If we don’t some other country will.
“Now in the progression of that we have work understanding we are the only nation on earth with an ESCAS system and I have to work with the Saudi government to that purpose and we have been doing that.
“The progression of those discussions all revolves around how we make sure we get the best possible and humane slaughter of those animals in those destinations, knowing that any animal the purpose of it ultimately, is for people to eat it.
“We have a responsibility to try and do that (animal slaughter) as humanely as possible and we’re working with the Saudis in doing that.”
Mr Joyce said he didn’t want to see any leakage from ESCAS supply chains in Vietnam and the best way to deal with that issue was to be able to go direct to China.
He said the Australian government was awaiting the protocols and advancing the process to eventuate in the sale of live animals into China.
Enforce ESCAS: Greens
But Greens animal welfare spokesperson and NSW Senator Lee Rhiannon said by giving the Saudis exemption from ESCAS, Mr Joyce was showing he doesn’t care about the continuing evidence of the horrific treatment of animals in overseas abattoirs or is admitting that any government can “bully its way out of any live export regulations if it wants to”.
Senator Rhiannon said ESCAS had largely failed in its role to better regulate the animal welfare industry.
“It is ignored by the live export industry, with animals suffering horrific and terrified deaths, and not one exporter has been penalised or banned for continuing breaches of this failed framework,” she said.
“In Vietnam, where cattle are slowly killed with sledgehammers, exporters are admitting everyone ignores the ESCAS.
“But we should be enforcing the ESCAS, not ignoring it.”
Senator Rhiannon said Australia should be moving towards becoming a leader in boxed chilled meat exports, instead of exempting countries like Saudi Arabia from “even the most basic animal welfare framework”.
“The suggestion the Saudis enforce strict animal welfare laws in their slaughterhouses, when there are no animal welfare laws or regulations in Saudi Arabia, would be joke if it wasn’t such a tragic and terrible outcome for so many animals,” she said.
Australian Livestock Exporters' Council chair Simon Crean declined to comment when contacted by Fairfax Media.