Australians were recently reminded of the violent reality of the live export trade when footage of terrified steers being bludgeoned to death with sledgehammers in Vietnamese abattoirs was broadcast on the ABC's 7.30. The incident was just the latest in a long line of controversies to have plagued the trade since animal advocates decided to shine a light on the conditions faced by Australian livestock sent overseas for slaughter.
The international reach of the advocate's camera has brought the blood, bellows, and brutality of foreign abattoirs into the living rooms of everyday Australians. Needless to say, they have been shocked and have demanded action accordingly.
No longer is the cruelty out of sight, out of mind. No longer can exporters rely on an apparent absolution of legal and ethical responsibility upon the animals' entry into a foreign jurisdiction. The public outrage upon being exposed to such cruelty made it abundantly clear that exporters bear a moral responsibility for the fate of the animals they are sending overseas.
In 2011, the Australian Government responded to these demands with the introduction of the Exporter Supply Chain Assurance System (ESCAS). The ESCAS was designed to trace the movement of animals in importing countries up to the point of slaughter in an attempt to ensure they would only enter approved facilities meeting basic welfare standards. It's an elaborate piece of regulatory ingenuity, complete with checks, audits and complex approval processes.
But is it working? Is it really safeguarding exported animals from cruelty, or is it simply window dressing, designed to placate a concerned but uninformed public? The Vietnamese experience provides some useful insights into these questions.
While the latest reports from Vietnam were shocking, they were not unique. Evidence of sledgehammering was presented to the Australian Government in June 2013 and again in May 2015. Despite further reports of serious animal welfare problems, including supply chain ‘leakage' involving many thousands of animals who likely met a similar fate, the Department of Agriculture and Water Resources saw fit to approve the aggressive expansion of supply chains throughout the developing nation.
In 2012, just 3,353 cattle were shipped to Vietnam; in 2015, that number had jumped to 311,523. The Government now approves nine exporters to send 20-30,000 cattle per month to over 200 facilities. There are now more Australian Government-approved abattoirs in Vietnam than there are abattoirs operating in Australia itself.
Many of the facilities are small, rudimentary operations with the capacity to slaughter only a handful of animals per day. They lack much of the basic infrastructure, equipment and training required to ensure the handling and slaughter is humane.
Such rapid expansion in such high risk conditions could only be made possible via a process of rubber stamping supply chains, and this has played out in the country's compliance record. Exporters have more recorded breaches of ESCAS in Vietnam than in any other country, and we have no doubt that the recorded cases are just the tip of the iceberg.
So it would appear that ESCAS is struggling to provide the Australian public with the animal welfare assurances it was designed to deliver. And it begs the question, how has this been allowed to occur during a period of such intense public and political scrutiny? How have we arrived at a point where, yet again, trade expansion and commercial interests appear to have been prioritised over animal welfare?
The answer lies in the way animal welfare is governed. Fundamentally, these problems are a product of government indifference and a hamstrung regulator. The Department of Agriculture exists to promote productive and profitable primary industries and, under the current mandate of the federal Agriculture Minister, aggressively expanding live exports is a core feature of that objective. This agenda is simply not consonant with protecting the welfare of exported animals. It's a clear conflict in regulatory responsibilities, and animal welfare has been neglected on a systemic basis as a result.
It is for these reasons the RSPCA and other animal welfare groups (and most recently, the Productivity Commission) are calling for governance reform.
Public concern for animal welfare continues to grow. It has become a significant public policy issue in its own right. This concern now deserves institutional recognition and we believe this should be acknowledged through the establishment of an independent statutory body dedicated to animal welfare at the federal level.
The new body would be a trusted and authoritative source of independent advice to government and provide information to the public on the state of animal welfare within the nation. It would raise the profile of animal welfare within government giving it the attention it deserves and the public expects.
Of course, such a reform would not prove the panacea for animal cruelty. Scenes of brutality are unlikely to be banished from our television screens any time soon, but at least we could show that as a nation we're doing more to prevent it.