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Australia’s Live Export Trade: Protecting Animal Welfare

16 March 2016

Australia’s cattle history extends back to the arrival of the First Fleet when on a hot summer’s day in 1788; four cows, one bull and one bull calf were offloaded in the newly established British colony. A humble beginning for an industry that today is worth AUD12.75 billion (consumer expenditure and export value), writes Christopher Gillies.

The country exports red meat and livestock across the world to key markets in Japan, Korea, North America, China, Europe, Russia, the Middle East, Africa and throughout South East Asia.

As a percentage of industry production, export accounts for 60 per cent, making it a vital component of industry’s long term viability and growth.

While the majority of Australian beef is shipped processed, there is also a significant share made up of live exports, which accounts for AUD1 billion of the country’s annual export earnings.

It’s a significant sector but is one that has considerable controversy; particularly as animal welfare concerns arise from the treatment of the stock both in transit and at destination where often the countries don’t share the same animal welfare values.

As you’d expect, there are vocal groups, such as the RSPCA and Animals Australia, which are strong advocates for an end to live exports. The groups regularly investigate and publish the conditions animals are subject when handled at destination up to slaughter.

Calls to phase out live export ignore the fact some of the countries animals are shipped to don’t have the infrastructure, refrigeration or cold chain facilities to handle processed meat, while others have cultural preferences that require the fresh slaughter of meat for human consumption.

Additionally, the live importation of cattle to countries can build a local industry if one does not exist or does not have stock comparable to Australia’s. Roughly, 80 per cent of cattle imported to Indonesia are sent to a feedlot for between 60 to 120 days prior to slaughter. In these cases the Australian livestock industry invests in education and training on appropriate handling and transportation techniques.

Groups such as Animals Australia disagree, saying that import countries increase their purchase of chilled or boxed beef in times of Australian drought when the number of livestock is reduced, or when live trade is halted as was the case in Indonesia recently. They also argue phasing out live export would create more Australian jobs with the increase in local meat processing.

In 2015, the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) reported the total number of live exports for the year.

Ending 31 December, 1,227,298 cattle were exported primarily to Indonesia, which purchased over 50 per cent; there were also a smaller number of dairy cattle exported to China. 1,959,762 head of sheep were exported to the Middle East, which took 98 per cent of the trade.

These numbers have grown each year highlighting a growth trend for the live export market.

The livestock export trade is regulated to protect the welfare of animals. This includes six monthly reporting to the Federal Government on the number of stock that die on the vessel.

Australia is the only country that imposes animal welfare regulations that include the unloading, handling and slaughter of animals. As Australia is the global leader in live export, the regulation and standards imposed have led to a raising of standards of other countries.

In 2011, these issues came to a head when video of inhumane treatment of cattle at an Indonesian abattoir was broadcast on national television.

The public outcry caused the then Federal Government to halt exports to Indonesia while an investigation was held to ensure livestock were humanely treated.

The outcome of this investigation was the introduction of new regulation to protect animal welfare while at the same time keeping the trade open.

This new regulation sits alongside a range of measures under the Exporter Supply Chain Assurance System, which makes the seller the exporter responsible for the entire supply chain to slaughter.

  • Exporters must have an Australian Government issued licence to export
  • Livestock must be selected, prepared and cared for in a way that complies with legislated animal welfare requirements
  • Livestock must be housed in Australian government approved quarantine facilities prior to departure
  • Veterinarians, and accredited stockpersons must accompany and care for livestock on board vessels throughout the journey
  • The exporter’s responsibility for the livestock welfare does not end once the animal is discharged
  • Exporters must provide the Australian Government with an independent performance audit report within 10 days of the last animal on the consignment being slaughtered.

The live export industry takes animal welfare seriously and has introduced a programme to ensure buyers of the livestock are trained in the humane handling of the animals and their slaughter. The name of the program is the Livestock Export Program and is jointly managed by industry groups Meat & Livestock Australia and LiveCorp.

Ultimately the goal is to ensure the best outcome for the industry, producers and to maintain a strict level of animal welfare.

Overview of Australian red meat

The popularity of Australian red meat comes from its “clean and green” reputation and the fact that the livestock are free of some serious diseases such as Mad Cow Disease.

Meat is covered by a quality assurance program and is traceable with all livestock movements from birth to slaughter or export recorded on a national database called the National Livestock Identification System (NLIS).

NLIS was introduced as markets such as Japan require full traceability of meat. Each animal has an electronic ear tag that is recorded onto the database. When it moves between properties, to a sales yard and to an abattoir its movement is logged.

Promoting Australian red meat and the live export industry is a producer funded organisation called Meat & Livestock Australia. It holds campaigns domestically and in key export markets as well as maintaining offices to build the vital local relationships to grow the market for red meat.

The largest buyer of Australian beef is the United States who imported 415,000 tonnes swt in 2015; of this 70 per cent ends up in ground beef products.

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