IN THE NEWS: On APR 10, 2018
Guardian analysis shows Australian regulators have failed to penalise live exporters, even when breaches have been clear.
Australian regulators have habitually failed to penalise live exporters despite multiple mass animal deaths and reported breaches of welfare standards an analysis by the Guardian has revealed.
The federal agriculture minister, David Littleproud, on Monday announced a review into the "culture" of the federal Department of Agriculture after it failed to uncover animal welfare violations that were later exposed by a whistleblower.
Animal welfare groups say that failure has much to do with a conflict of interest in the department, which has responsibility for regulating the live export industry but also has responsibility for promoting the interests of farmers.
This conflict has resulted in a regulator that is reluctant to penalise exporters, even when there is a clear and acknowledged breach of animal welfare under the Australian Standards for Live Export (ASEL).
An analysis by Guardian Australia of 70 mortality investigation reports produced by the department shows a number of cases where conditions contrary to ASEL are noted in the report. Despite this, Guardian Australia found no instances of punitive measures such as fines or loss of export licence being imposed. The department was asked to provide details of any companies that had been punished for breaches of the standards, but it did not respond.
Many fatality reports result in additional conditions being added to the exporter's next consignment, such as loading fewer animals or the addition of a vet. In several cases, temporary halts on exporting were imposed but later lifted.
Guardian Australia's analysis also showed that four live export companies have each recorded five or more reportable mortality events between 2006 and 2017, and one company has recorded six.
A reportable mortality event, which triggers a mandatory desktop investigation by the department, is defined as a loss of more than 2% of all sheep or goats on board or either 1% or 0.5% of cattle and buffalo, depending on the voyage length.
Some of those events coincided with recorded breaches of ASEL but the causal factors identified in many mass fatality events are permitted under Australian law.
Dr Sue Foster, a former livestock veterinarian and spokeswoman for Vets Against Live Export (VALE), said Australian animal welfare standards were outdated and not sufficient to reduce suffering.
Foster said footage of sheep suffering from severe heat stress, broadcast on Channel Nine's 60 Minutes program on Sunday, showed cramped conditions that were permitted under Australian law.
Other conditions on the ship, including the presence of pregnant sheep or lambs as shown on the video footage, were in breach of ASEL.
The footage, filmed by trainee navigator Faisal Ullah, covered five voyages including the August 2017 Emanuel Exports consignment on the Awassi Express, in which 2,400 sheep – or 3.79% of the 63,804 on board – died. The primary cause of death was heat stress.
The footage triggered an urgent investigation by Littleproud, prompting both the departmental review and the establishment of a new whistleblower hotline to expose animal cruelty.
He has also promised tough new penalties for those who breach animal welfare standards, with laws to target company directors.
"It is important we get integrity into the live [export] system and those people doing wrong need to be held to account, whether that is a company or an individual," he said.
Emanuel Exports director Nicholas Daws released a statement saying the footage was "heartbreaking" and apologised to both farmers and the community at large. The company's managing director, Graham Daws, was inducted into the live export industry's hall of fame last year.
Emanuel did not respond to specific questions asked by Guardian Australia.
The footage was branded shocking and unacceptable by the Australian Live Export Council, the federal agriculture department and the farming lobby, a position that the Western Australian agriculture minister, Alannah MacTiernan, suggested was naive.
"I'm not sure what they thought 2,500 or 3,000 sheep dying of heat stress in a confined space was going to look like," she said. "It was always going to look like this. Unfortunately there has been a culture of keeping their head in the sand and just allowing these appalling practices to continue."
She said the federal department had "whitewashed" conditions on the Awassi. The WA government is currently investigating whether Emanuel can be prosecuted under the state's Animal Welfare Act.
"Quite clearly the federal government has continued to allow companies that have offended to just go and do it again," she said.
The mortality rate for live export shipments has fallen slightly over the past two decades. The number of sheep exported has also declined.
Foster told Guardian Australia that the core factors behind the distressing footage – heat, humidity, and crowding – were routine.
"That is how every ship goes out of Fremantle," Foster told Guardian Australia. "When an event happens with a functioning ship stocked to Australian stocking densities, how could they penalise the exporter? They can't. This is Australian law."
Foster has tracked the live export trade for more than a decade.
"Those things have all been stocked under Australian law, have been loaded under Australian observation by an approved inspector, they have gone stocked according to an Australian government load plan," she said. "The Australian government has allowed every one of these voyages … They can't penalise [exporters] for what happens when exporters are following Australian law on the ships."
Lynn Simpson worked as an on-board veterinarian on live export ships between 2001 and 2011 and spent 11 weeks working for the department on a planned review of the ASEL. She was dismissed after a submission she made detailing poor conditions on the ships was published on the department's website.
She settled with the department for breach of contract last year.
"If a voyage went poorly they would tell them that the next voyage had to be loaded 10% light, so 10% less animals," she told Guardian Australia. "And then surprisingly they would get a better result."
The 2012 ASEL review was shelved and dusted off again in 2017, following another high profile mass mortality event involving Emanuel Exports. Submissions closed last month.
Simpson is one of a line of veterinary whistleblowers who have been pushed from the industry after making statements that were unfavourable to exporters.
In 2008, veterinarian Lloyd Reeve-Johnson was directed to disembark the Hereford Express, a live export ship stocked by International Live Export Pty Ltd, three days before the end of the voyage, despite some stock remaining on board.
The advocacy group Animals' Angels brought a federal court case against the department in 2012 demanding it show cause why it had not either cancelled International Live Export's export licence or otherwise reprimanded it for what it said were "intentional or reckless breaches of the export license conditions" on that voyage, including the failure to have an accredited stockman on board for most of the voyage.
The court found the department did not have to show cause, despite its initial response to Animals' Angels admitting that "proper policy ... was not followed".
"The exporters have way too much control over the regulator," Simpson says.
Submissions to the ASEL review by animal welfare groups have called for an immediate end to live exports to the Middle East during the northern hemisphere summer, which has been the site of the largest sheep fatalities in the past decade.
Australia exported 1.78m sheep in 2016, of which 99.1% went to the Middle East and North Africa. The average mortality rate was 0.8%, up from 0.62% in 2015.
The total number of sheep that died on live export ships was 14,182. Mortality rates for the second half of the year were between two and three times that of the first half of the year.
August is the deadliest month. High humidity over the summer-warmed waters of the Persian Gulf creates a soupy atmosphere, uncomfortable even for the humans walking freely around the decks of a live export ship.
For sheep, packed in at a density of up to one adult sheep per 0.38m2, it soon becomes intolerable.
They begin to pant and drink copious amounts of water, which returns to the deck in the form of slurried sewerage. Ammonia and carbon dioxide levels increase, making it harder to breathe. Sheep begin to collapse.
"They do actually start to literally go blue, on their gums," Simpson said. "At that point it doesn't matter how much water you put in troughs, they can't drink it because they're so busy starving for oxygen that if they tried to have a drink, they actually start to choke on it."
If you sail to the Middle East between May and September, Simpson says, a mass mortality heat stress event "could happen at any time."
"What the footage [from the Awassi Express] shows is stuff that I have seen before," she says.
On one voyage, Simpson said, she measured the core body temperature of a recently dead sheep as 47C. The normal core body temperature is 38.5C.
"They were dropping around us like they had been shot in the head," she writes of that voyage. "As they hit the deck we would drag them out and I would cut their throats."
They were mercy kills, she says – the sheep would never recover from that degree of heat stress. Their blood was hot enough to scald, their fat "melted and like a translucent jelly. They were cooking from the inside."
The bodies rapidly deteriorate.
"It's very unpleasant," Simpson says. "They fall apart."
The Department of Agriculture sets the heat stress threshold for adult sheep at a wet bulb temperature of 30.6C but a study in feedlot conditions by Murdoch University found that sheep began to show signs of heat stress at 26C.
Wet bulb temperatures take into account both ambient temperature and humidity and mark the lowest temperature at which an object can be cooled by evaporation.
The deadliest sheep voyage of the past 10 years departed Adelaide with 44,713 sheep on board on August 2013, picking up another 30,795 sheep in Fremantle five days later.
Heat stress claimed 4,050 sheep in a single day as the wet bulb temperature reached 38C when the ship arrived in Qatar. The total mortality rate for the voyage was 5.53%.
The Meat and Livestock Association's national livestock industry performance reports note a "consistent seasonal difference" in mortality rates for adult sheep, which increase substantially from June to September.
There are recognised heat stress mitigation strategies, including turning the ship to get cross breeze and allowing sheep into the aisles.
It helps, but Simpson says to reduce overcrowding to a level that would lessen its impact on heat stress you would need to reduce stocking densities by 50% and allow sheep to eat at will, rather than on rations.
"That of course is going to be non-commercially viable," she says.
Australia exported about 890,000 cattle in 2017, with an overall mortality rate of 0.10%.
In the same period Australia exported 1.7m sheep, with a mortality rate of 0.9%, or 12,377 recorded deaths. The industry has improved over the years, with the general trend for the mortality rate heading downwards.