The war of words between Vets Against Live Export (VALE) and the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry (DAAF) has intensified after the December broadcast of footage showing cattle being cruelly treated by an Israeli abattoir on the ABC’s 7.30 Report.
An investigation by an Israeli journalist revealed that animals at the Bakar Tnuva abattoir were subjected to cruel applications of electric goads to the head, rectum and genitals.
Additional footage showed the dragging of a cow across a concrete floor by its forelimb on a forklift, the repeated punching of a cow in a crush, poor sheep handling and unstunned slaughter.
VALE veterinary behavioural consultant, Kate Lindsey, analysed the footage and said the appearance and behaviour of the cattle is consistent with severe physical and psychological stress.
“A consistent finding in the footage was that the downer cows were alone,” Lindsey said.
“Cattle are a prey species that form cohesive groups. Being on their own is highly stressful for most cattle.
“The footage also showed many incidences of tail flicking, backward ear position and showing of the whites of the eyes, all behavioural signs consistent with agitation and distress.”
Lindsey added that the facility was inappropriate for slaughter and that any animal entering it was likely to suffer significantly before death due to slippery surfaces and a very high noise level.
The DAFF conceded that the images are distressing and show staff actions that are inconsistent with animal welfare standards that are a condition of approval for the export of Australian animals.
A DAFF spokesperson told The Veterinarian the DAFF is investigating the reports to determine whether the footage is of Australian animals and whether Australian regulatory standards have been met.
Under the Australian regulatory framework of the Exporter Supply Chain Assurance System (ESCAS), livestock may only be exported in to approved supply chains, must be traced for the duration of the journey and treated at, or better than, internationally agreed welfare standards.
Supply chains must also be independently audited to verify ongoing compliance.
An initial audit of the Bakar Tnuva abattoir was conducted in July 2012 by the exporter Elders.
DAFF released a summary of the outcomes in December 2012, and the audit found that the abattoir could potentially meet ESCAS standards.
Under ESCAS, exporters are required to initiate independent audits of the slaughter facilities and processes prior to export.
Initial audits establish whether the supply chain can meet Australian legal requirements.
Further audits are required to establish whether requirements are continuing to be met.
“The initial independent audit (by Elders) was just that, a first initial audit,” the spokesperson said.
“Independent performance audits will also be required after the exporter’s livestock have entered the supply chain.”
The DAFF spokesperson added that the Australian Government has commenced a number of actions including formally approaching Elders to commission an additional independent performance audit of this abattoir and has sought additional assurances from them and any others exporting to Israel that they remain in a position to comply with ESCAS.
“The Department also welcomes the reports from the CEO of the abattoir that the plant manager has been replaced and the contract workers involved have been ordered not to come to work,” the spokesperson said.
VALE have criticised Agriculture Minister Joe Ludwig, who on December 13 told The Australian that “there will always be incidences of cruelty” in the live export trade and “there was no way to completely guarantee every foreign importer of Australian livestock would not be cruel to the animals.”
The statement comes a little over a year after Ludwig told the ABC’s Landline that cruelty in importing countries was not acceptable to him, the community or producers.
VALE said the shift in the government’s rhetoric illustrates that it is impossible to impose welfare standards on importing countries.
In early December a worker from the abattoir told the Israeli news outlet Haaretz that after the Australian audit occurred there was no violence inflicted on animals for a couple of weeks.
H owever, cruel and violent practices soon recommenced to ensure the processing chain moved at a faster speed.
According to VALE, the minister’s recent admission is acknowledgement of a “two tier” animal welfare system, the first being the high standards imposed locally, and the second being the “inevitable” cruelty to Australian animals in importing territories.
The DAFF spokesperson conceded that exporting livestock is like any other business, and things will not always go according to plan.
“ESCAS aims to minimise adverse animal welfare incidents for Australian livestock, and ensure when they do occur it provides a regulatory process to investigate and address these incidents in a manner that minimises the disruption to trade and improves animal welfare outcomes,” the spokesperson said.
DAFF claim that before the new system was introduced this was simply not possible.
“Industry and the government were unable to identify individual supply chains or enforce improvement in supply chain processes. Today we have a system in place that can identify where a problem exists, and directly address it.”
The spokesperson urged the public not to allow recent events to detract from the “substantial reforms to the livestock export trade that have been made.”
The coming months appear ripe for further conflict on the issue, with VALE spokesperson Sue Foster describing the DAFF as an organisation that “vigorously supports and promotes live export.”
“A cynic might suggest that DAFF is now describing itself as the “independent regulator” because it is under threat by the Labor Party caucus vote to consider establishing an independent regulator,” Foster said.
In addition, Animals Australia has claimed a shipload of cattle left Australia for Mauritius with a number of heavily pregnant animals on board.
On the other side of the debate, the Western Australian Livestock Exporters Association chairman John Edwards has also said the association is hoping for greater flexibility in government regulations to assist Australian exporters to develop greater trade opportunities with countries who have not completed the ESCAS paperwork.