AGRICULTURE and Water Resources Minister David Littleproud says the problematic Vietnamese live cattle export market has undergone a cultural shift and now “accepted” the regulated animal welfare standards, imposed by the Australian government.
Mr Littleproud visited Vietnam last week - his first time to the rapidly expanding agricultural trading market since taking over the job in December - which included touring beef processing facilities and holding talks with industry stakeholders.
The northern market destination has been a source of immense growth for the live export sector in recent years and the national economy, since opening up about five years ago and Mr Littleproud said demand for Australian beef product remained high.
But in importing 181,542 head in 2014 - up from 67,000 the year before - Australian government and industry officials faced a significant and escalating challenge to implement animal welfare standards at the same pace of change, through adherence to the Export Supply Chain Assurance System (ESCAS).
That dilemma was bitterly exposed in early 2015 when perennial live exports agitator Animals Australia lodged an ESCAS complaint with the Department of Agriculture alleging it had evidence of the “horrific sledge hammering to death” of Australian cattle in Vietnam.
As revealed by Fairfax Agricultural Media at the time, concerns were also raised about the on-selling of exported Australian cattle outside of ESCAS approved supply chains into China, through northern Vietnam, due to dramatically higher prices on offer.
Public outrage over cattle being hit with a sledgehammer during processing - despite claims a cattlemen’s axe was being used by a Vietnamese abattoir worker to administer pre-slaughter stunning through a practice more advanced than historic welfare methods - led to the live export industry suspending some importers and implementing reforms.
But at the time, then Australian Livestock Exporters Council (ALEC) CEO Alison Penfold - who is now working in Mr Littleproud’s office as a policy adviser and some say has been central to guiding his response to the latest saga involving sheep exports to the Middle East - rejected calls from usual sources like the Greens for a total market ban, saying the answer was to instead, “fix the problems that exist, at the source”.
“We’re effectively changing our customers’ business models in the Vietnam market,” she said at the time.
In shades of the minister’s response to the latest outrage over video footage broadcast on 60 Minutes of unacceptable welfare conditions on board sheep shipments from WA to Middle Eastern markets, due to heat stress, Ms Penfold also met with Animals Australia and the RSPCA for face-to-face peace-talks and to exchange views on suggested solutions.
It was the first time the warring groups had met for about three and a half years, following unprecedented loss of trust and animosity ignited by the underground political campaign that led to the snap 2011 Indonesian live cattle ban which caused massive social and economic disruption.
“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,” Ms Penfold said.
One of the aspects of ae six-point industry plan submitted to ALEC by Animals Australia and the RSPCA in 2015 was to install CCTV cameras in Vietnamese cattle handling facilities, which Mr Littleproud witnessed in operation first-hand last week when he visited the Vissan Abattoir in Ho Chi Minh City.
Mr Littleproud told Fairfax Agricultural Media he met with a number of abattoir owners last week while in Vietnam and they were “very accepting now of the ESCAS system”.
“They accept it,” he said.
“I think they’re continuing to do that because they have a commitment and understanding of the importance of the trade to them.
“We heard not only from the abattoir owners but from the importers themselves about the importance of getting Australian beef – they want it because that’s what’s in demand.
“There’s a burgeoning middle class and they are looking for Australian beef so they now understand the importance of meeting the (animal welfare) standards that we expect of them because they want the product.
“There’s a huge demand up there.
“I think the culture has got to a point where they understand it, they want to work with it and we want to strategically invest in partnership with them to improve the skills of those people working in those abattoirs, to get to that level that will give us the comfort to continue sending live trade up there.”
On his visit to Vietnam Mr Littleproud also announced funding for the Managing Abattoirs, Training and Exchange of Skills (MATES) in-country training program that aims to ensure international animal welfare and food safety standards are met.
He said the MATES program would help to address any animal welfare issues in Vietnamese abattoirs and build more trust with the Australian community.
“We’re training people to be slaughterman and butchers and to do it in a proper way so we can protect the live trade industry on the ground in Vietnam,” he said.
“There’s great acceptance of that and MLA (Meat and Livestock Australia) have been there leading the way and they’re making sure these programs are getting rolled out
“I visited an abattoir there and they were very excited about the fact that the investment in the human capital was going to have a payback not only to them but also for our cattle producers, in the North in particular.”
According to LiveCorp, last year Australia’s export of live cattle totalled 879,958 head valued at $ 1.2 billion - with Vietnam, taking 167,369 head (19 per cent of all cattle exports) behind Indonesia in first place with 511,878 head (58pc of the total).
But while the Australian public and politicians were outraged at the treatment of an animal no longer legally owned by an Australian farmer or exporter within the Vietnamese market - and similar rhetoric erupted over the latest incident involving Emanuel Exports concerning the loss of 2400 sheep on consignment to the Middle East - enhanced welfare outcomes for non-Australian animals due to ESCAS and other measures are overshadowed by gross over-reaction to video footage appearing on public television.
An estimate provided by industry sources this week said 1 million head of non-Australian livestock had been handled through ESCAS facilities in Vietnam - but the trade’s critics are deathly silent on such an outcome and the broader, and dramatically enhanced animal welfare benefits, attributed to local government and industry investment and government responses.
Asked if he expected Animals Australia to take video footage of improved animal welfare outcomes occurring on the ground in Vietnam and try to have those images broadcast on national television to show the Australian public, Mr Littleproud said “They’re always going to be there” and “I welcome whistle-blowers”.
He said he opened a hotline last Friday for taking telephone complaints about animal welfare issues in the live export industry.
“I’m making sure that number is available in the export industry to make sure that there’s an environment where people can come forward – and they should come forward,” he said.
“Nobody accepts cruelty towards animals and if someone does the wrong thing we should call them out so my job is to create that environment and continue to do that but we’re also creating the environment on the ground.
“I saw first-hand in this (Vietnamese) abattoir where CCTV is there - where the animals were being slaughtered and down the race - so Australians can get confidence that they’re being treated the same way we’d expect them to be treated, in an abattoir here in Australia.”
In 2016/17, Australia’s live cattle export trade to Vietnam was valued at $243 million.
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The story Cultural shift for welfare of live exported cattle in Vietnam first appeared on Farm Online.