DAFF labelled ‘out of touch’ over exports

Veterinarian Lloyd Reeve-Johnson has called for an overhaul of what he describes as systemic flaws in the Australian government’s live export system.

Reeve-Johnson from Pacific Animal Consulting and Agribusiness visited Mauritius at the request of Animals Australia to report on the status of cattle exported from Australia on the MV Barkly Pearl in October.

Animals Australia became aware of welfare problems on the voyage after being approached by a Mauritian importer. The exporter was Australian company South East Asian Livestock Services.

Reeve-Johnson stated that his investigation revealed significant problems including misleading paperwork.

He is also concerned that the Mauritian slaughter facilities fail to comply with the OIE recommendations sought to be imposed by Australian live export law.

The primary reason the importer was concerned was that a number of the imported livestock were pregnant and therefore unacceptable for slaughter under Mauritian law.

Australian live export standards also demand that cattle sourced for export as slaughter animals must be determined not to be pregnant by testing no more than 30 days before export and certified by the registered veterinarian or pregnancy tester.

I have worked internationally with livestock for 20 years and am a great supporter of productivity and commercial enterprise, yet I cannot think of any other commercial situation where there has been less transparency in the paperwork or such repeatedly inadequate oversight,” Reeve-Johnson said.

This is damaging to the livestock trade, to farmers, to the reputation of veterinarians and clearly to the health and welfare of the animals involved.”

Reeve-Johnson said a core issue in the case is “repeatedly flawed and contradictory” paperwork which obscures issues such as pregnancies, deaths of cattle, unaccounted calf euthanasia and poor handling and slaughter facilities.

The Australian Certificate of Health signed by an AQIS-approved veterinarian obtained by Animals Australia states that none of the female cattle were pregnant at the time of export.

However Reeve-Johnson said that two calves were reported as having been born during the voyage; killed and thrown overboard but not noted in the onboard veterinarian’s report.

He added that four cows were found to be pregnant at slaughter, and nine cows which died in the feedlot in the first week after unloading were also found to be pregnant.

According to Vets Against Live Export (VALE), an Australian veterinarian sent in by the exporter allegedly told the importer that at least 80 further cows and heifers were pregnant before refusing to examine further cattle.

Reeve-Johnson said he witnessed obviously pregnant cattle in the feedlot and noted the eartag details of four further cows from the shipment with young calves.

VALE spokesperson Sue Foster said the issue of pregnant cattle being exported on live export ships has been emerging as a significant welfare issue in AQIS mortality investigation reports over the last few years.

However, this is the first time that independent investigation and veterinary inspection has confirmed the potential extent of the problem,” she said.

Reeve-Johnson said there is a systemic fault that has repeatedly recurred since the Cormo Express, “and that is a lack of independent veterinary oversight.”

Of particularly concern to critics of Australian live exports is the fact that AQIS approved veterinarians are paid and engaged by the exporters.

Inspecting their employer is hardly independent,” Reeve-Johnson said.

Given these recurring problems one would think that DAFF would ensure that the veterinary oversight and monitoring of all livestock exports becomes patently independent with no connection to those making profit from the trade.

Veterinarian reports should probably also be readily accessible to public scrutiny if any degree of public confidence is to be restored in the industry and veterinarians are to avoid being implicated in unacceptable practices.”

A further problem identified by Reeve-Johnson was that while the onboard veterinarian reported to the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry (DAFF) that there had been 18 deaths during the voyage, it appears that the ship’s captain reported to Mauritian authorities there were no mortalities during the voyage and two deaths during discharge.

The senior veterinary official in Mauritius noted that there was a discrepancy of 18 cattle between those reportedly carried on the ship (2061) and those unloaded (2043), and requested an explanation.

Reeve-Johnson also noted emaciated Australian cattle in the Mauritian feedlot, an abnormally large number of cattle dying in the feedlot in the months after transportation, and evidence that the onboard veterinarian had no supply of antibiotics well before the end of the voyage.

Documents obtained by Reeve-Johnson also indicate that while there was an approved veterinarian onboard, there was probably no stockman as required by Australian live export standards.

Finally, Reeve-Johnson met with Mauritian authorities and discovered that while Mauritian slaughter facilities (which commonly include roping and casting of animals and home slaughter) were unlikely to comply
with the new live export regulations, there had been no inspection from Australian authorities.

The Divisional Veterinary Officer in charge of monitoring the abattoir told Reeve-Johnson that there had been no visit by an Australian official for at least two years, despite the fact that Mauritian facilities are required to be approved under the Export Supply Chain Assurance Program (ESCAS).

In April 2012, the South African program Carte Blanche reported dire conditions for cattle during a Barkly Pearl voyage from the UK to Mauritius, with animals lying in faeces and being subject to violence.

The program also reported that the lower decks of the ship were unsafe for animal transport due to the accumulation of faeces and high ammonia levels.

Animals Australia has demanded that DAFF conduct an inquiry in to the voyage.

DAFF has repeatedly demonstrated it is out of touch with the reality in importing countries, with revelations by Animals Australia forcing it to do what it should have done long ago,” Foster said.

The demonstrated prevalence of rope slaughter in Mauritius, which would be unacceptable even under the minimal OIE recommendations, shows that it is highly unlikely that there will be compliance with ESCAS requirements.

DAFF should refuse to authorise any further shipments to Mauritius until its own officers have been able to verify the adequacy of animal welfare standards in this country and on this ship.”

A spokesperson for DAFF said South East Asian Livestock Services Pty Ltd self-reported a number of non-compliances associated with a consignment of Australian cattle to Mauritius.

“DAFF commenced a formal investigation on the day the report was made,” the spokesperson said.

“The investigation will consider a range of issues arising from the consignment, including the role of accredited veterinarians. Any material referred to the department concerning allegations is considered as a matter of course.

“As with any investigation, it will take as long as needed to ensure all information is thoroughly examined and a regulatory response is made proportionate to the findings.”

The spokesperson added that DAFF will report on the outcomes of the investigation when complete.

SAM WORRAD