AGRICULTURE and Water Resources Minister David Littleproud’s tough talking in calling out BS over the latest live exports controversy indicates he’s deadly serious about taking action over the death of 2400 sheep and has live export vessels squarely in his sights for a regulatory response.
Video footage that’s due to be broadcast on 60 Minutes at the weekend is set to reveal shocking and unacceptable vision of sheep suffering heat stress in two separate shipments, from 2017 and 2016, destined for the Middle East.
The 2017 voyage in question by Emanuel Exports concerns a consignment of 63,804 sheep loaded at Perth in WA that suffered 2400 mortalities.
The deaths represent almost double the 2 per cent threshold accepted within the current regulatory reporting limit prescribed by the Australian Standards for the Export of Livestock (ASEL).
Emanuel Exporters Managing Director Graham Daws issued a statement yesterday, on the back of the minister’s robust media conference (where his use of shearing shed language certainly had an impact), referring to a report released by the Department last week from an investigation it has already conducted into the mortalities on board the Awassi Express voyage last year.
That report concluded the majority of deaths were caused by heat stress.
But Mr Daw’s joint statement with the Australian Livestock Exporters’ Council (ALEC) said the live export industry regulator’s investigation found the sheep were prepared and transported in accordance with federal government exporting standards, including ASEL.
It said the Australian Maritime Safety Authority (AMSA) also conducted another independent investigation of the matter and concluded that all livestock services on board the ship were operating satisfactorily during the voyage.
The shipment included 50 head of cattle that were all transported safely to their export destination – in other words a 100pc result.
“The peak in mortalities corresponded with extreme heat and humidity experienced in Qatar,” the Department’s investigation concluded.
“The humidity and temperatures experienced from day five to day 13 and associated deck conditions, prior to arrival in Qatar is likely to have contributed to the severity of the mortality event.
“The department is considering a revised Heat Risk Management Plan from Emanuel to address the risks associated with consignments exported to the Middle East during the hottest months (July/August) - these changes will be implemented in 2018.”
Mr Daws said the Department’s response also required Emanuel to comply with a heat stress management plan for the company’s next consignment to the Middle East using the same vessel, which occurred in September 2017, and it recorded a 0.52pc mortality rate.
But if Mr Littleproud’s Department regulates live exports, as he told media repeatedly at his press conference yesterday, and has already examined the incident that took place when Barnaby Joyce was the minister and took action, along with AMSA’s examination, many will ask what’s now changed?
And why is this stirring up the media and producing news?
Quite simply - it’s all about the ferocity of the video footage appearing on commercial television this weekend from the two Middle East shipments and the anticipated public backlash that’s likely to erupt.
That is, if anyone actually decides to watch it now.
Some within industry and government who’ve already seen the images ahead of the 60 Minutes broadcast have drawn stark comparisons to the gut wrenching vision that rocked the live export industry like never before, when unprecedented treatment of Australian cattle exported to Indonesia appeared on ABC’s Four Corners program in May 2011.
It’s believed the footage taken by a whistle-blower is also unprecedented, in terms of revealing on board ship conditions.
It shows sheep and lambs that have been left for dead for so long from heat exposure the carcases have started decomposing, some up to their necks in manure and urine, panicked heads gasping and sticking out of rails and others suffering discomfort while stuck in boggy manure pads.
The words contained in an on-board veterinarian’s regulatory report, or those that appear in print or online media reports like this, may well paint a gruesome picture in the mind’s eye, of the animal suffering and mortalities.
But the written word can’t possibly induce the same type of emotional reaction that sharp video images can, in bringing to life and revealing far more intimate signs of animal pain, in full frontal detail.
While the ABC Four Corners program of 2011 won widespread media acclaim, it was also considered a ratings-killer due to the graphic nature of the video footage taken in Indonesian abattoirs by Animals Australia as part of a deliberate political and media campaign to try to have live exports banned, in conjunction with RSPCA Australia.
Everyone knows how that story unfolded and in many ways the political fallout has never gone away - not just for cattle producers.
The ferocity of public outrage that instantly erupted on social media led to death threats against some industry members and producers, relentless media reporting on the back of the pre-planned and emotion-charged activist-driven ban live exports campaign and the vicious political backlash directed at federal politicians.
That collective outrage ignited the shock snap suspension of the Indonesian market about a week later by the then Labor government and Agriculture Minister Joe Ludwig that was initially for up to six months.
The regulatory response between industry and government was establishment of the Exporter Supply Chain Assurance System, with the Indonesian market re-opened in about five weeks, to provide a system of tracking and traceability for every animal exported from Australia to overseas markets.
Some say the video footage of sheep suffering that’s now in focus doesn’t reveal the same type of brutal cruelty and shocking animal welfare breaches, at slaughter, like the ham-fisted cutting of throats that aired in 2011.
And it’s unlikely to trigger a total market suspension by the Coalition government.
But the video evidence is expected to incite fresh outrage leaving Mr Littleproud and the government, and his department, with little to no option other than to take appropriate action to try to further improve industry standards, in a segment of the supply chain that’s unlikely to ever escape activist and media scrutiny, no matter what the performance statistics ever say.
Just what that reaction will be, however, is yet to be fully determined.
But you can all but guarantee exporters are now on red alert and suffering growing anxiety, given Mr Littleproud’s verbal pre-emptive strike yesterday, in such overt public fashion.
The minister said the video he saw yesterday, provided by Animals Australia, prompted him to seek more information, with his Department set to make recommendations on how best to respond.
Mr Littleproud said the video footage was “quite frankly disturbing” and he’s also waiting for further feedback and information, including from Animals Australia, to inform his position.
He’s also written to the live export industry requesting an update on its heat stress research that he says is based on “considerable” funding provided by the federal government.
Australian farmers care for their animals and “they'll be angry and hurt when they see this footage”, he said.
Mr Littleproud told media yesterday he’d watched two four minutes videos – one for each voyage – as part of the process he’s undertaken.
“This is the livelihoods of Australian farmers on that ship – that is their pride and joy and it’s just total bullshit that what I saw, is taking place,” he said.
Asked if Emanuel Exports should be banned from exporting, Mr Littleproud was non-committal and said “it’s a very fluid situation”.
“I’ve only been provided with this information only over the past week,” he said.
But he said an export license suspension, or total loss of an export license, as well as criminal penalties, could be imposed.
“If improvements need to be made, they’ll be made,” he said.
“I’ll be asking the hard questions of the Department around this because this is totally unacceptable, what I saw on that vision.
“This is total bullshit – you can’t put it any other way – this is disgusting.
“We need to get this right and there should be no fear, if you’re doing the right thing with this industry, you’ll be protected.
“(But) if you do the wrong thing and step outside the boundaries, you’re going to get nailed and so you should.
“I’m not making any presumptions – it’s important that the presumption of innocence be provided to these people until such time as the investigation is completed.
“We intend to take it very seriously.”
Live exports agree conditions “plainly unacceptable”
ALEC went a long way towards agreeing with the minister saying the video footage was “highly distressing and unacceptable to the industry, livestock producers and the community”.
ALEC was also shown the footage by 60 Minutes this week, although it said copies of the video weren‘t being released by Animals Australia due to an “exclusive agreement” with the Channel Nine program.
“These deaths and the conditions in which they occurred are plainly unacceptable,” ALEC CEO Simon Westaway said.
The ALEC boss is understood to have been interviewed for the program by reporter Liam Bartlett along with WA Agriculture Minister Alannah MacTiernan who some say is on an ideological campaign to sabotage the live exports industry and has previously attended rallies in Perth and stook shoulder to shoulder with other anti-live-exports campaigners.
ALEC said in 2017, 12,377 sheep died in transit out of a total 1.74 million head exported from Australia – recording a mortality rate of 0.71pc and the range of livestock mortalities since 2010 has been between 0.6pc to 0.9pc and was trending down, “but our industry is determined to achieve better outcomes”.
“Exporters work with the Department to manage the recognised risks associated with exporting to the Arabian Gulf in the northern summer due to the seasonal heat and humidity, but more needs to be done,” Mr Westaway said.
But are those figures alone enough to tell the real story about animal welfare outcomes and measuring success and is the current system flawed; despite being considered world leading?
The live export industry through its researcher LiveCorp has been conducting research into ways animal welfare performance indicators can be enhanced, to provide more rigorous analysis of the actual conditions on board shipments, which would provide detail beyond the basic mortality numbers like the 2pc reporting threshold.
This could well be the ace that’s up Mr Littleproud’s sleeve, in showing the public affirmative action is being taken by government and industry to improve animal welfare standards and address issues, rather than leapfrogging to a knee-jerk ban.
LiveCorp’s 2017 research update report shows there’s work underway into enhancing animal welfare indicators with a pilot program that has a life-cycle budget of more than $720,000, starting in July 2017 and running to May 2021.
The minister may well be unhappy with that time-frame – but to bring the results forward, industry could also demand more funding, to meet community driven expectations of performance measurements; especially when the response is prompted by another media and activist driven campaign, with a whistle-blower letting off steam.
The LiveCorp report also shows there’s a budget of more than $250,000 for a project on heat management in the Middle East and another one for determining temperature and humidity thresholds in sheep with a budget of $261,000 and result due on February 1 this year.
Development and assessment of animal welfare indicators – quantifying welfare improvements in the live export industry
The monitoring and assessment of animal welfare throughout the livestock export process is essential to demonstrate care, the desire for continuous improvement and a sustainable future for industry.
However, animal welfare is complex and multifaceted and it is therefore critical that valid, reliable and practical indicators are identified to underpin monitoring and assessment.
The aim of the project was to identify internationally accepted and current indicators of animal welfare for cattle, sheep and goats that could be used at each point along the livestock export supply chain.
To identify these indicators, the project conducted a literature review of standards and regulations, as well as a stakeholder survey.
The survey of over 900 people from the community, animal welfare groups and the industry found a high level of agreement in the perception and importance of animal welfare.
Based on this work, to date the project has identified 54 indicators.
Twenty of these are currently monitored by industry and the additional indicators, that are relevant, are currently being assessed for validity and reliability.
The monitoring / assessment of these indicators are in the process of being piloted throughout the supply chain and should ultimately result in a method to benchmark performance and identify areas of improvement using an integrated welfare assessment.
Heat Management in the Middle East
Heat load in sheep exported from Australia to the Middle East continues to have the potential to be a health and welfare concern.
The LEP (Live Export Program) has ongoing research into this area to promote the development of best practice guidelines for infrastructure design and livestock management.
This research has been conducted in several phases.
Phase 1 of the research gathered information about the internal rumen temperatures of sheep exported from Western Australia to the Middle East at various times of the year, with comparison to environmental conditions.
Phase 2 of the research focused on monitoring environmental conditions and animal responses under different shade types and when different additional measures are applied to cool sheep.
Cooling interventions were tested and there was success in demonstrating greater decreases in the rumen temperatures of sheep held under double shade, exposed to fans and where ground wetting was applied (as compared to the control sheep that were kept under single shade structures).
A Tips and Tools document was produced as a result of the first two phases providing guidance on infrastructure and management practices to support improved heat management.
Based on environmental data gathered at several Middle East feedlots, there was a need identified for further evaluation of different shade structures and interventions in different climatic conditions. This research will continue in 2017 – 18.
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The story 60 Minutes set to be another do or die moment for live exports first appeared on Farm Online.