CALLS to impose a voluntary industry suspension on live cattle exports to Vietnam, while ongoing concerns about supply chain breaches remain unresolved, have been roundly rejected.
Animals Australia spokesperson Lisa Chalk said five more reports had been made to the Department of Agriculture about the Vietnam market, since serious allegations were raised in May of Australian cattle being killed with a sledgehammer, outside of the Exporter Supply Chain Assurance System (ESCAS).
Ms Chalk also questioned the industry’s lack of response to a six-point plan that outlined additional animal welfare measures like mandatory CCTV in ESCAS facilities.
The six-point plan was submitted by her group and the RSPCA three months ago, when grievances over Vietnam were aired, at a meeting in Canberra with the Australian Livestock Exporters Council (ALEC).
In a statement to Fairfax Media, Animals Australia chief investigator Lyn White outlined the latest reported ESCAS breach, saying hundreds of Australian cattle had “disappeared” from a feedlot in Vietnam over the past two weeks, with their fate “unknown”.
“After Animals Australia alerted the government to this latest incident, the exporter admitted 226 cattle had gone missing from their supply chain, but we have been advised by local sources that the number is in excess of 400,” she said.
“Grave fears are now held for how the missing cattle will be handled and killed, with death by sledge-hammering being a common method of slaughter in Vietnam.”
Ms White said the six point plan aimed to cut the risks faced by Australian cattle in Vietnam and was handed to industry along with calls for a voluntary suspension “until the industry could publicly declare that their supply chains were secure”.
“It is profoundly disappointing that we are yet to even receive a response to this proposal, and in the meantime, live export breaches have continued in Vietnam,” she said.
But ALEC CEO Alison Penfold said suspending the entire Vietnam market was not the way forward because exporters were working with local importers to “fix the problems that exist, at the source”
Ms Penfold said industry acknowledged issues remained that needed repairing in the Vietnam market “and we are taking steps to do so”.
“We’re effectively changing our customers’ business models in the Vietnam market,” she said.
“But exporters are already taking steps, on the ground and in ESCAS facilities, to prevent any leakage of animals.”
Ms Penfold said she had informed Animals Australia and the RSPCA their six-point plan was being considered.
“The answer is not walking away from an entire market because the view that some people have, that the animal welfare standards would somehow improve if we exited the market, is false,” she said.
“We are putting people on the escalator towards welfare stands that meet or exceed OIE (World Organisation for Animal Health) and that will remain front and centre of our work in Vietnam.
“I’m not rejecting the concerns of these groups because we share those concerns too but we believe a different approach is warranted.
“There would be animal welfare consequences and business consequences and to peoples’ livelihoods, of any market closure.”
A spokesman for Agriculture Minister Barnaby Joyce said the ESCAS system was designed to minimise risk and deal with issues when they occur, not to close entire markets, in response to allegations regarding only some facilities.
“The department assesses whether different supply chains and different facilities can manage risks to the standards required under ESCAS,” the spokesperson said.
“Every incident is investigated and where problems are found exporters are required to address them - that is why the ESCAS system was introduced.
“Australia is the only one of more than 100 countries that exports live animals that requires World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE) welfare standards to be met as a minimum for exported livestock.
“ESCAS’s focus on improving animal handling and slaughter practices in relation to Australian livestock will have flow-on effects, over time, to the treatment of all animals.
“If we were to withdraw from livestock export markets, the standard we require for animal welfare would inevitably fall rather than rise.”
The spokesperson said since March 2015, through self-reports by industry, the Department had removed or temporarily suspended four importers, 13 abattoirs and five feedlots in Vietnam from receiving Australian cattle.
However, RSPCA CEO Heather Neil reinforced calls for a voluntary suspension.
She said despite multiple reports of ESCAS breaches and continued industry claims of fixing known problems, major issues within the Vietnamese market “have again been exposed”.
“In light of this we want to the government and live export industry to halt the export of Australian cattle to Vietnamese facilities,” she said.
“The industry had a crisis meeting back in March and issued a plan to address known issues in April and yet hundreds more cattle have 'disappeared' from a feedlot in the last few weeks making it clear whatever they're doing clearly isn't working.
“Every time an animal is sold outside the supply chain it faces potential cruelty and a brutal slaughter.
“Aside from implementing CCTV in some facilities, it appears nothing has changed.
“The industry needs to implement a voluntary suspension of the Vietnam trade until they can make a public declaration that all supply chains are secure.
“At the very least, exports to facilities currently under investigation should stop immediately, particularly those who have breached the rules on multiple occasions - they clearly have zero respect for the system or for animal welfare.
“Allowing these exporters to continue to take our animals makes a total mockery of ESCAS and reiterates to the Australian public that this trade cannot be trusted.”
A link to the status of the Department of Agriculture's regulatory compliance investigations can be found here.
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