Australia: Live export debate continues

Live export versus Australian halal meat

5 November 2010
Frozen halal meat from Australia is sold in supermarkets in the Middle-East alongside meat from animals shipped there live in controversial conditions. Michael Carter reports on the alternatives to live export.
SheepImagine that you’re on a plane going overseas. You’re adequately watered and fed by the stewards even if the legroom isn’t great. Below you is a ship going in the same direction.
There are humans on this ship too, but not many. Most of the ship’s passengers are animals. You don’t know them (who knows a cow?) but they’re there and have been living in the same country as you. They have been raised with the help of your taxes. They are packed in tightly, as many as 60 000 on a ship (have you ever complained about leg room?). If you’re a sheep, the captain won’t report anything untoward unless two per cent (or more) of you die along the way.
Can you imagine this occurring on a flight? And when you arrive overseas and pick up your dog or cat, imagine four or five more pets in the same carrier. This is what that ship below you looks like. This is live export. Australia is the world’s largest annual exporter of live animals to be slaughtered.
According to the RSPCA, Australia sends ‘4 million sheep, 600,000 cattle and 25,000 goats’ overseas every year. The journeys, which can last up to three weeks, are made with economic, religious, cultural and logistical concerns in mind. Yet animal welfare groups have long-held concerns that live transportation is contrary to the health and welfare of animals. The Australian Standards for the Export of Livestock (ASEL) provide the benchmarks for the welfare of animals in live transport. These standards cover several aspects of live export including sourcing animals from farms, transportation, registered export feedlots, vessel preparation and on-board management.
However, the RSPCA’s 2008 report ‘Australian livestock Export Standards – a flawed process’ – found that the standards are essentially unenforceable in significant ways. Comparisons should be made between native ‘coat of arms’ animals and those domesticated. Why is the live export of kangaroos prohibited under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act? Why is kangaroo meat shipped frozen and not other types of meat? Live export is often so crowded that it is difficult for animals to reach water or food. But, according to the website of the Australian Livestock Export Animal Welfare Group (LEAWG), “animal care is the first priority for everyone involved in the Australian livestock export industry.”
In such charged debate, you have to look beyond preambles to philosophies, intent and membership. LEAWG’s membership includes the Cattle Council of Australia, the Sheepmeat Council of Australia and Meat & Livestock Australia. The live export industry is powerful and lobbies government in earnest for the upkeep of a near $2 billion industry. Yet a spokesperson for Live Export Shame says the industry’s influence is unfounded. “Why is it that LEAWG can make such sweeping statements when they do not have control over the live export industry? When they do not audit the live export industry? LEAWG can lay claim to whatever they want. Don’t you think the proof should be in what happens on the ground?”
What happens on the ground, or sea, is essential to campaigners and their efforts. The sinking of the Panamanian transport ship MV Danny F II in 2009 is a case in point. In December of that year, approximately 30, 000 cattle and sheep were lost in the accident, highlighting the plight of live transport on a formerly Australian-owned vessel. The main issue here is Halal. More specifically, it is the Australian livestock industry’s approach to Halal-certified slaughter. RSPCA CEO, Heather Neil, stated at the time of the accident that Egypt had “proven it [would] take Australian chilled and frozen meat over live animals, so we should be working on growing our processing capacity, not increasing live exports”.
According to the RSPCA, there are over one hundred certified Halal abattoirs that could viably slaughter animals in Australia. According to the LEAWG website, the live export industry also admits “Australia exports chilled meat to the same countries it supplies with live animals.” Following similar incidents between Australia and the Middle East the practice of live transport was banned between Australia and Egypt in 2006. As campaigners predicted, countries such as Egypt increased their intake of frozen, pre-packaged meat following the ban. Yet with the reintroduction of the route, the debate between live transport and export of chilled meat rages on; often to exasperating avenues. The spokesperson for Live Export Shame tells me “over 80% of the animals sent live are slaughtered in slaughterhouses and their meat sold in supermarkets along side chilled Australian slaughtered animals.”
It’s a strong argument for the organisation’s view that “the most economically viable form of export of animals is over the hook: chilled or frozen.” While under ASEL, the Australian live export industry is considered as having the world’s ‘highest animal welfare standards’ by Meat & Livestock Australia (MLA), “what is on paper and what occurs in reality are different,” says the Live Export Shame spokesperson. “It is important to examine the industry to see if there are mechanisms in place which demonstrate that animal care is a priority.”
This is a recurring theme in the debate. LEAWG’s informative, slick website even hosts a “Myth Busting” section which dispels these assertions by stating that “claims of cruelty by animal rights extremist groups are absolutely untrue”. Most organisations, like the World Society for the Protection of Animals (WSPA), advocate for a humane method of transport for animals. Their proposal is simple: that animals be humanely killed prior to transport. This method flows into the frozen meat alternative. Talking to and researching animal welfare groups, terms like ‘humane slaughter’ and ‘point of origin’ are seemingly the antithesis of the live export industry. The industry turns to the economic effect of a wholesale change. They repeat that the export industry is worth “$1.8 billion” annually and highlight the lack of refrigeration in destination countries.
I ask Live Export Shame if live transport is the most viable way of exporting animals internationally. They are matter-of-fact. “We are less concerned with other viable ways of transporting live sheep or cattle than we are with their welfare. We cannot imagine any other way – either ship or air flight – and we would think flying 80, 000 sheep on a plane is impossible.’