The Australian Live Export Industry

Australia has been exporting livestock, primarily cattle and sheep, to more than 60 countries since the 1880s. According to recent research, the live export industry is a significant part of Australia’s gross domestic product (GDP), contributing over $2 billion annually. However, there has been an increasing concern in society regarding animal welfare in the last 40 years, which has led to various policies and regulations to enhance the exported livestock’s well-being. Eventually, all exporters lost their licenses and had to prove to the Government that their organizations could work according to the new principles and requirements. Nonetheless, industry stakeholders and the Australian Senate Select Committee on Animal Welfare agreed that live export was a significant part of the Australian economy and provided considerable assistance to farmers. Based on that agreement, the Government decided that the livestock trade should continue, provided animal welfare was ensured.

Livestock Export Accreditation Program

However, the Australian Meat and Livestock Industry Act of 1997 reduced the Government’s role in the field, giving processors and farmers more control over their activities. The following Livestock Export Accreditation Program (LEAP) defined the significance of positive welfare outcomes for all animals, subsequently developing Australian Livestock Export Standards (ALES) to address and mitigate potential adverse welfare outcomes. Those standards exist nowadays, outlining the essential principles that all organizations conducting business associated with livestock export should follow. Moreover, LEAP introduced a specific set of requirements for exporters, including their obligations, a minimum quality level displayed, and the audit process of working procedures. Those requirements were vital for the successful completion of the accreditation process. Still, there have been many incidents related to cruelty and unhealthy condition of livestock that attracted the attention of society and media.

A Review of the Welfare Standards

The Australian Government has restricted sheep export in the Middle East during summertime since previously accepted principles do not consider how heat acclimatization affects animals during sea trips. However, one of the latest standards of 2020, ASEL 3.0, intended to remove mortality from the criteria of measuring animal welfare. The Department that has created the standard has corrected it to reinstate stocking densities for short livestock transfers if an overall exporter’s performance has been positive. That decision has disappointed animal advocate groups, but exporters state that the scientific work supporting the alternative allocations under the amended standard is limited.

History of Australian Live Export Events

The 2003 MV Cormo Express Disaster

In August 2003, the MV Cormo Express departed with almost 60,000 sheep on board, heading to the Saudi Arabian seaport. It was an incident-free voyage with a considerably low mortality level. However, Saudi Arabia rejected the entire shipment since it contained more scabby mouth sheep than was allowed according to the acceptable tolerance level, which was a result of both countries’ agreement. Australian Government requested another examination as the onboard Australian Quarantine and Inspection Service (AQIS) counted an insignificant amount of scabby mouth sheep. The request was denied, and the exporter and the Government agreed to load extra fodder on board to send the shipment to the discharge port. The described events took much time, causing 6,000 sheep’s death, meaning that the mortality rate for that shipment exceeded 10%. Thus, despite the contentious nature of the disagreement between Saudi Arabia and Australia, the Cormo Express disaster dealt significant damage to the Australian livestock industry and caused a necessity to rebuild the community’s confidence.

Outcomes from the Cormo Express

The primary outcomes of the Cormo Express disaster were significant changes to the live export policies and procedures and scrutinizing the treatment of Australian livestock overseas by motivated animal advocate groups. Dr. John Keniry, hired by the Australian Government to review the existing regulations related to the livestock export industry, made a list of recommendations, including the following:

  • redeveloping the existing ALES standards;
  • giving control of the export legislation to the Australian Government;
  • linking the criteria for approving export licenses to live export legislation;
  • making veterinarians who assemble the livestock for export answerable to AQIS;
  • continual research and development programs in the industry;
  • establishing a Memorandum of Understandings (MoU) with the importing countries;
  • creating a national response system to control potential emergencies in the industry.

Keniry’s report emphasized that Australian livestock exporters held responsibility for maintaining animal welfare while directly involved. Thus, incorporating the doctor’s recommendations led to a new set of export standards called the Australian Code for the Export of Livestock (ACEL).

Overseas Events

After some videos revealing mistreatment of Australian cattle within a Cairo abattoir were published in 2006, the trade between Australia and Egypt stopped for two years until both countries came to an agreement and signed the corresponding MoU. A similar event occurred when the program A Bloody Business was aired in 2011 by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC), demonstrating videos of cattle mistreatment in Indonesian abattoirs. However, the subsequent trade ban on cattle shipments was found unlawful in 2020 by the Federal Court of Australia. According to the judges, the agriculture minister wrongfully exercised lawful authority since industry stakeholders assured him that the livestock welfare standards could be improved within the Indonesian supply chains. The minister did not seek any possible solutions to the issue.

The so-called closed-loop system implemented in Egypt ensured that all animals were tagged, meaning that they could be traced within the supply chain without any risks of being mistreated overseas. The cruel practices in Indonesian abattoirs led to the creation of the Export Supply Chain Assurance System (ESCAS), stating that exporters and their customers should have specific arrangements related to the livestock treatment from the moment they are discharged in the importing country to the moment of their slaughter. In many respects, ESCAS is an extended version of Keniry’s recommendations with particular intentions, including the following:

  • Ensuring that animal welfare recommendations are satisfied by the importing countries;
  • Giving exporters control of all supply chain measures;
  • Allowing exporters to trace each animal throughout the supply chain;
  • Ensuring independent audit of the importing country’s supply chain.

However, an ABC report argued about the ineffectiveness of ESCAS due to various problems occurring in the livestock export industry, stipulating further research on the subject.

The 2018 MV Awassi Express disaster

Another disaster occurred on board the MV Awassi Express heading to the Middle East, with 2,400 sheep deaths during the voyage. The occasion made the Australian Government review the exporting standards, regulations, and policies while increasing the penalties for exporters who do not follow the rules and creating a hotline for incident reports. Following this act, an independent observer program was introduced in 2018, intended to provide reports concerning the conditions in which each livestock consignment was transferred. However, the program has been widely criticized by both industry stakeholders and independent animal advocate groups. Thus, the Australian Government hired Philip Moss and Dr. Michael McCarthy to review sheep voyages and ensure that exporters follow the standards related to animal welfare. The reviews of Moss and McCarthy resulted in their recommendations on animal welfare policies which were further accepted by the Department of Agriculture, Water, and the Environment.

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