Brian Daly interviews RSPCA Australia’s Chief Science and Strategy Officer Dr Bidda Jones and Senior Policy Officer Dr Jed Goodfellow. In this episode, we delve into the RSPCA’s well-known and long-held opposition to live animal exports. For an organisation that supports farming and generally pushed to improve (rather than outright ban) poor practices – why is live export one of few exceptions?
Brian: If you're concerned about animal welfare you may have been following the disturbing story over the past couple of weeks, about the 10s of thousands of sheep to be exported to the Middle East. On the live export ship the El Kuwait. The ship was scheduled to depart from Fremantle with 56,000 sheep on board at the end of May, right on the eve of the June 1st deadline, when exports are prohibited due to the high risk of significant suffering from heat stress, as they head into the northern hemisphere summer, but due to an outbreak of COVID-19 in the crew, the ship was unable to leave as scheduled and the exporters applied to the federal government for an exemption to the northern summer ban. After initially refusing the exemption on animal welfare grounds, the Department of Agriculture performed an extraordinary backflip and has allowed the ship to leave in the full knowledge of the suffering the sheep would inevitably face. This is just the latest in a very, very long list of crises, where the RSPCA has fought to protect animal welfare against an industry that puts profit ahead of animals every time despite their best efforts, and I know how tirelessly our friends at the RSPCA were working to try to stop this. The ship is now on its way to Kuwait, with 35,000 sheep on board. The community response to this has once again been overwhelming. So today, instead of our scheduled program, we're bringing forward an episode on the live export trade we recorded a few weeks ago. In this episode I interviewed the RSPCA’s Dr. Bidda Jones, who has been working to end live exports for over 20 years and is the co-author of ‘Backlash’. A book on Australia's conflict of values over live exports. And Dr. Jed Goodfellow, who is an animal welfare lawyer who specialises in Regulatory Affairs in the live export trade.
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Opening quote: if your business model is built on a degree of animal suffering or cruelty in the 21st century in Australia that is not a sustainable business model.
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Brian: Hello, and welcome to RSPCA Australia's humane food podcast. My name is Brian Daly and today we're talking about an issue that has been high on the agenda for decades and was again brought to the fore when atrocious animal welfare issues were exposed once again in the last few years. And that issue is live export of sheep and other livestock from Australia. And to get us across the facts. Today we have Dr. Bidda Jones, Chief Science and Strategy Officer at RSPCA Australia and Dr. Jed Goodfellow, Senior Policy officer at RSPCA Australia. Welcome to the podcast, Bidda and Jed.
Bidda & Jed: Thanks, Brian.
Brian: Now Bidda you and I've been discussing this issue since we first met around 20 years ago and quite frankly I can't believe that we're still talking about it. But for our listeners, could you give us a bit of a history of live exports and why the RSPCA is opposed to the trade?
Bidda: Yeah. Thanks, Brian. I can't quite believe that we're still talking about this issue. 20 years on either, but I guess I am used to things taking a long time to change when it comes to animal welfare. And this trade is certainly one of those issues. So, the first report I ever wrote for RSPCA Australia was on live sheep exports to the Middle East. And I'm still shocked about what happened to animals subjected to this trade. That's not to say we haven't achieved a lot since then in driving animal welfare improvements, and I'm sure we'll come to talk about some of those things. But the fact that the trade still continues is very disappointing. But there are two parts really to the history of live exports. There's the sheep trade, and there's the cattle trade. So, the live sheep trade started off in Western Australia, as early as the 1940s, originally to Singapore, and then in the 1960s, the trade to the Middle East, really kicked off. And demand started to surge at that point in time when previously small vessels had been used to transport sheep. And they started converting vessels, dedicated livestock carriers to carry up to 50,000 sheep at once. And in fact, the largest vessel carried over 130,000 sheep on one voyage. So, at the peak of the trade, which was in the 1980s 7 million sheep were being exported from Australia every year. So that was about half of all of the sheep leaving Western Australian farms were going on boats overseas to the Middle East. The numbers have dropped since then, and with the current restrictions that we've got now on exports to the Middle East in summer, it's now down to about 1.2 million sheep a year. So, it's risen, it's peaked, it's come down, we just want to see that downward decline continue. So, you know, that progress itself that we've got fewer animals being subjected to these journeys, that the second part of the trade is the cattle trade. So that started in the 1980s to Southeast Asia and, and that's still predominantly the trade that we have now. So, it's mostly what are called feeder animals and those are young cattle that aren't heavy enough for slaughter. So, they go to Indonesia, which is the main market, and they're grown in feedlots there. And the main reason why that's done is because it's cheaper, cheaper to feed them in Indonesia than it is in Northern Australia, where the climate is very seasonal in terms of being able to grow cattle. So that trade is still significant. It's around a million cattle going from Australia, every year to Indonesia to Vietnam. And there's still a continuing long-haul trade in live cattle to Israel and Turkey and an emerging significant trade in dairy cattle to China. So, its big business and this industry, it's been going for a long time. But there are changes happening. The second part of your question is why is the RSPCA opposed to this trade? So, it's pretty simple. Why would you put sheep and cattle through an unnecessary and extremely stressful journey when there's a clear alternative to it, and that's just slaughter those animals in Australia. So, there's a there's a policy that's shared amongst every animal welfare organisation in the world that livestock should be slaughtered as close as possible to the point of production. It's a tenet that sort of sits at the basis of lots of farm animal welfare policies. But live export fails when instead you can send them to the nearest abattoir. So that's why we oppose the trade because we know that there's an alternative. And we know that putting animals on boats to send them to other countries is going to cause them stress. And we also know that what happens to them at the other end is a lot worse than it would be if they were kept in Australia and slaughtered in Australia. So that's the reason why we oppose it. There are people who defend the trade and they talk about people working in the trade or working to improve animal welfare. They talk about how mortality rates on board ships have dropped over the years. They talk about how Australia, you know, working overseas is improving standards. Well those changes, those things have only happened because of the work of the RSPCA, the work of Animals Australia and another animal welfare groups, because we've put pressure on the trade to improve. Every single change that the industry has made has been the result of the campaigning that that the RSPCA and others have done. And in fact, the one thing that has resulted in the most change has been when there's been video evidence of cruelty, that's the tool that makes governments listen, it makes the industry listen, it makes it impossible for them to ignore the issue. And that's been the thing that has driven all of those improvements.
Brian: Yeah, so getting that out in front and showing the public what's actually going on that is an important part, as you say, to drive that change. Jed, for anyone that hasn't seen what goes on the ships, can you describe the conditions on board and what animal welfare issues they present for Australian sheep? And cattle?
Jed: Yes, Brian. So sheep and cattle are both subjected, as Bidda was saying there are a number of stressors during the transportation process, and particularly on board when they're on the high seas. So if you can imagine transporting now thousands upon thousands of grazing animals over the high seas over the equator, and then into the climatic conditions of the Middle East in the Persian Gulf and the Red Sea, it's not a great environment for the animals to be faced with. So, issues such as high stocking density have been around for decades, so they've been reduced slightly in recent years. But still, the densities are too high for all of the animals to lie down at the same time. And we've got to remember these voyages take several weeks, we're talking about three to four weeks when they go into the Middle East. And the government thinks that it's acceptable to set densities that only allow around about 15% of the animals to lie down at the same time. In addition to that, when they're going over the equator, they're hitting very hot and humid conditions as well. So when it's combined with the high densities, and then the faeces build up, of course, because the animals are just deprecating in their in their pens, you get a high humidity and you get high ammonia levels as well on board the vessels that cause a range of different ailments to the animals as well. So, in terms of the conditions that they face, in addition, or the failure to eat, the failure to adapt to the new feed that is provided to them on the vessels is a major problem. Pneumonia is also a condition that they face, pinkeye, or conjunctivitis, and is quite common, particularly with sheep as well. So when you factor into the, to account the fact that there's no real individual care of the animals on board the vessels either so there's often one vet available on the long haul voyages and that can be for a shipment of some 50 or 60,000 sheep. So, there's no sense of individual veterinary care for these animals. Animals that go down or animals that are diseased or injured are actually lucky to be identified let alone provided with any kind of treatment. So, you know, overall, it is a very testing environment to put the animals through and the industry and indeed the government in the past has really tried to rely on mortality rates and lowering levels of mortality rates to present a good picture of the trade to suggest that the animal welfare conditions are okay because mortality rates are coming down slightly. While that is true that mortality rates are coming down slightly. The number of animals that die on board the vessels really can't be taken as a measure of animal welfare. It can't tell us anything about the welfare conditions or the experience of those animals that survived the voyages so the government and the industry really need to move away from using mortality rates to judge their animal welfare performance because it really doesn't paint a very accurate picture.
Brian: And the welfare issues don't end when they are unloaded either, as you said Bidda, do they?
Bidda: No, they don't. The treatment of cattle and sheep in importing countries is just as much of a concern to us as the journey that Jed described. So most of the countries that we export to don't have animal welfare laws of the same standards that we have in Australia, most of the countries don't have stunning or they don't use stunning, so that's making an animal unconscious, so they don't feel any pain during the slaughter process itself. And we talked about the importance of stunning in series one of this podcast. Also, the handling of animals in importing countries is often very poor. And that's because we're exporting animals, large potentially dangerous Australian cattle who aren't used to that close contact with humans, but maybe what people are used to in importing countries. So often people are cruel because they actually aren't able to deal with the animals that they're having to slaughter and slaughtering an animal who hasn't been stunned prior, as part of the process is a very dangerous and difficult thing to do. So, when we first started, when I first started working on the live export trade, we just didn't know that much about what was happening in importing countries. That changed significantly in around 2003 when Animals Australia started filming. So, Lyn White started investigating in the Middle East and sending back images video of the treatment of cattle and sheep. And we saw from those images, sheep that were being sold from markets in the Middle East, they were being crammed into car boots that were tied to roof racks. It was incredibly hot conditions and they will being slaughtered in makeshift abattoirs. And just subject to really appalling treatment, we thought that that was significantly an issue in the Middle East. But in 2011, when the RSPCA and Animals Australia, teamed together to look at the trade in Indonesia, and the four corners program that exposed that issue to the Australian public, we saw that the handling and torture of cattle in Indonesia was just incredibly cruel and occurring right under the noses of the industry. So, it was at that point that the Australian Government accepted that we, when we send animals overseas, our responsibility towards them doesn't end so the significant thing that happened then was bringing in ESCAS. So, ESCAS is the exporter supply chain assurance system. And it for the first time meant that the treatment of animals they live in Australia that there were standards to which the exporters had to meet. Now it was a very big step forward, but it was from a very low base. And ESCAS still has a number of significant flaws. The main one is that it doesn't require stunning, so the government had the opportunity back in in 2011 to require every animal leaving Australia to be stunned at slaughter in the importing country. It didn't require that, it didn't choose that. So, we still have many exported cattle and the sheep that are exported are still having that throats cut while they're fully conscious. That's just not acceptable. We still know that sheep and cattle are leaking from the system and facing cruel treatment. So as recently as 2019, we saw images of cattle in Indonesia being roped and slaughtered in the way that we had seen in 2011. And also ESCAS doesn't cover breeding or dairy animals, it's only animals that are exported for slaughter that are covered by ESCAS, so it was an important step forward, but we still have significant issues with the treatment of Australian animals in the countries that they're exported to.
Brian: And it's extraordinary to me reading on this, you know, as far back as 1985, the Senate Select Committee on animal welfare stated, if a decision were to be made on the future of the trade purely on animal welfare grounds, there is enough evidence to stop the trade, but it's still going. And the animal welfare issues, obviously, as you say, remain so is it even possible to have this live export trade that provides decent animal welfare or is cruelty inherent in the trade?
Jed: You know, Brian, I think, you know, when you look at the decades of experience and history with this trade, it really demonstrates that it isn't possible to provide adequate welfare standards within this trade, because the welfare issues are very much inherent to the way the trade operates. So, what like Bidda mentioned small modifications and adjustments have been made over the years, but they've only really been tinkering around the edges, they haven't addressed the fundamental intractable problems. So, at best, you could say that they've slightly reduced the level of suffering that the animals are subjected to. But when you're looking at whether it's the stocking densities, whether it's the prolonged heat stress on board the vessels, whether it's the terrible conditions on board the vessels, or indeed the way they're, they're sorted in the in the foreign jurisdictions, those issues are still there. And there's no real signs that the industry or the government's going to be able to address or ameliorate those issues without making the trade economically viable. And that was made really clear just recently when the government finally handed down its decision on the future of the live sheep trade when exporting during the northern hemisphere summer periods. That's during the May to October period. And the government following the Awassi Express scandal, when there was a 60 minutes episode showing the horrific conditions that the sheep was subjected to on multiple voyages to the Middle East during this period of the year, and the government instituted the a range of reviews, they appointed an independent technical panel to look at heat stress and to make recommendations for how to avoid that heat stress during the voyages, and the panel made, recommendations that would effectively lead to the end of the trade during that May to October period, that was the only way to mitigate against peak stress for sheep going to the Middle East. Now, when the government crunched the numbers, and when they consulted with industry, they soon realized that acting on those recommendations would quickly lead to the end of the trade in its entirety. So, if you end the trade for six months of the year, it would effectively lead to the end of the trade as a whole. So, the government came to a compromise position. It prohibited the trade for three and a half months of the year but still allows the trade to continue in those months of May the latter half of September and October, where the scientific evidence shows that sheep will continue to suffer prolonged heat stress at that time of year, and the government had to make that decision in order to keep the trade afloat. So it just showed that if the government was to act on the scientific evidence, if the government was to put in place conditions that would effectively address the welfare problems such as heat stress, it would very quickly make the trade economically unviable, which just shows that the business model of the trade is very much built on a degree of animal suffering. So, animal suffering is very much inherent to the nature of the trade itself. And that is why, as Bidda has mentioned the RSPCA and every major animal welfare organisation across the globe has, as arrived at a position that there is there is no possibility of improving welfare conditions in the live export trade to a point that would be acceptable. And that's why we really do need to see an orderly transition away from sending animals live on boats overseas to be slaughtered and transitioning that trade to a domestic processing trade.
Brian: And is this a viable option essentially transitioning from a live animal export trade to a meat export trade?
Bidda: Well, the irony of this, Brian is that I think because so much media attention is focused on the live export trade and rightly so got such an awful track record. But, what that means is most Australians have no idea but it makes up such a small proportion of the sheep and cattle industries in Australia. So, It's probably worth just explaining that a little bit. So, Australia is a, we're a meat exporter not a live exporter primarily, most of the animals that reside here, most of the sheep and cattle are raised here are destined to be consumed overseas. But around 95% of them are slaughtered here in Australia, not sent for live export. So, and that 95% they’re slaughtered here under Australian conditions that require pre-slaughter stunning. They go to markets that require Halal. But there's no issue over stunning in Australia and Halal. So, they are humanely killed in Australia, so it’s only around 8% of beef cattle and about 4% of sheep that will end up on a live export vessel. That's a fairly small proportion in the scheme of things. So, what we would like to see is those numbers to go down, that 95% in total A soldier here to be 100%. In fact, I read recently that most of the cattle, most of the beef cattle in Australia are slaughtered within 400 kilometres of where they reared. So that principle I talked about earlier, ensuring that cattle, that livestock are slaughtered as close as possible to the point of production, that's been met for the majority of cattle in Australia. And probably, I don't have the number but probably for them, but for sheep too. So, let's, let's try and stick to that principle. The trend is that live sheep exports are going downwards very significantly. Not quite so much for cattle, although cattle move up and down a bit. They range around the million mark. But the international demand for meat from Australia is growing like it's it continues to grow with very strong competition overseas for Australian beef and lamb and sheep meat. We can't actually keep up with that demand. So, there's no question that were those animal slaughtered in Australia, there would be a market for them. And it would be a market for that meat in those overseas markets.
Brian: And it seems like a logical thing to do and Jed you mentioned we should be transitioning to this in a way that's planned and so that there's no impact on the on the farmers and all that sort of thing. And if we had been doing this a while ago, then we would be there by now. But in the last few years alone, we've seen thousands of sheep on single voyages, we’ve seen cattle bludgeoned to death with sledgehammers in their destination country. We've seen a huge public outcry with the vast majority of Australians calling for an end to live exports. What is the government doing to address it and isn't enough?
Jed: The government certainly over the last couple of years, because again, because of media, exposes and public pressure, has instituted a number of different reviews and reforms. But again, the reforms really don't go anywhere near far enough to addressing these inherent problems. So just to address some of what the reforms have entailed, we've had the review of heat stress in the live sheep trade. And that's resulted in a three and a half months of prohibition of the trade, so between June to mid-September, so that, again is a positive thing, because we're seeing hundreds of thousands of sheep being saved from that journey of that time of year. But again, we're still seeing the sheep being exported at other times of the year that still subjects them to heat stress. We've seen a lowering of stocking densities between 20 to 28%, depending on the time of year, but again, that still only enables at best 50% of the animals to actually lie down at the same time during these three to four week voyages. One of the other significant reforms that the government put in place following the Awassi Express scandal in 2018, was to place government observers on board the vessel so government veterinary officers, and these observers have the role of basically reporting back to the government on the conditions and what they're what they're seeing and what they're monitoring, which has really improved transparency within the trade and has been a positive development. However, only 18 months on, we're seeing the government now starting to wind back that program. So, observers are now going on less than 50% of the voyages. And at the moment, while we're in this COVID-19 pandemic, no observers are going on the vessels because of the difficulties and the risks in the in the foreign jurisdictions and getting the government officers home. So we see this sort of cycle, I guess, in terms of the live export trade where there will be a major disaster there will be public pressure and media pressure and scrutiny on the trade, government will be forced to act, they will institute reviews and that might be in good faith. But as soon as they start getting the recommendations that are based on the evidence and the science, and they start realising what impact that's going to have on the economics of the trade. The government then starts to pull back from those commitments that it's made, and it and it starts to wind back the reforms that were put in place. So that's why it's extremely important for organisations like the RSPCA and Animals Australia and other NGOs and the broader public to maintain pressure on the trade and the government to ensure that we're not going backwards.
Brian: And you mentioned the COVID-19 Jed, and we're recording this episode remotely. We're all socially distance we’re self-isolated due to this deadly virus that's basically being caused by poor treatment of animals. So surely, if there was ever a time to revaluate our treatment of animals in every facet of our lives, especially in something like live export, that is inherently cruel, Surely this is it?
Bidda: I would really hope so. Brian, I think we are living in unprecedented times. And I think anything might be possible. But there is a major challenge that we've always faced with this particular issue in terms of trying to change and campaign to transition away from live export. And that's because unlike most of the issues that we talked about here on the humane food podcast, the demand for live export comes from outside Australia. So, it's the people, governments in those Middle Eastern countries that still want to buy live animals as opposed to, to buying meat. And so, we can change that. But we can't do it through consumer pressure, engaging with Australian consumers isn't enough for that. We can't send signal to the live export industry just by changing our buying habits here in Australia. So that's why we have to take this campaign to government and it's why we need a different kind of support from the people that engage with the RSPCA. So, if people listening are keen as we are to see an end to this trade, we'd really encourage you to sign up to our E-news. We've run campaigns on this issue, as scandals emerge as exposes emerge as government gives us the opportunity to write submissions or do public consultations, there are things happening all the time that we, we need your support with. So if you can jump on our website and go to our live export campaign pages and sign up to our E-news, I hope that then you know, we can actually reach that point where in the not too distant future, all of the food animals that are in Australia are actually supported here. And we can help ensure better animal welfare outcomes for them all.
Brian: So, would you agree, Jed, that it needs to come from within Australia to drive change at the legislative level?
Jed: Yeah, absolutely as Bidda explained. This is why live exports has been with us for so long, because if these kind of conditions and this kind of cruelty was happening here in Australia, we would be much more adapt at dealing with it quite effectively quite efficiently, whether through market mechanisms or government legislative mechanisms. So, it is a difficult problem to address. But again, when Australia's participating in this trade, the trade must be done in accordance with Australian values. And that is why we're calling upon the Australian government and our political representatives to reflect our values by ensuring that actually happens and ensuring that in the process of transitioning away from a live export trade producers are assisted in that transition process as well.
Brian: So it seems to me that if you know, we take the logical conclusion from everything, you're saying, we actually take the science onboard, we take the years of looking at this, and we take the government reviews actually saying that this can't go on. It's not economically viable, then there must be a transition point out of here somewhere, and it's just a matter of time.
Jed: Yeah, I mean, fundamentally, it's not sustainable. If your business model is built on a degree of animal suffering or cruelty in the 21st century in Australia, that is not a sustainable business model. And I think that's what the trade as a whole, that's what the industry as a whole needs to really grapple with. And the government really does just need to bite the bullet and start to show some leadership and put in place a fair, reasonable transition process where producers and industries assist in that process, so that we don't have to continue seeing Australia's international reputation tarnished by further cruelty and disasters within Australia.
Brian: I couldn't agree with you more. I think it's high time we moved on, but I really appreciate your time talking to us today Bidda and Jed. It's a really important issue. And I do hope we're not talking about it for much longer into the future. It's high time as you say a government took on board science, the demands of the public and the sound economic rationale, the transition from this inherently cruel live export trade to a meat only trade. So, so thank you both, and thanks to all the team at RSPCA Australia for continuing to drive the much-needed change in this area. Thanks, guys.
Bidda & Jed: Thanks, Brian.
Brian: We've been talking today with Dr. Bidda Jones Chief Science and Strategy Officer at RSPCA Australia, and Dr. Jed Goodfellow, Senior Policy officer at RSPCA Australia, and thank you for listening. If you would like any more information on live export, visit the RSPCA live export campaign page at rspca.org.au. You can also subscribe to the podcast series at the RSPCA Australia website rspca.org.au or all the usual podcast suspects. And if you'd like to read Bidda’s book ‘Backlash’ Australia's conflict of values over live exports, which I can highly recommend. You can buy a copy at the RSPCA’s world for pets online store. Just search for ‘world for pets backlash’. And if you like our podcast, please rate us and tell your friends. I'm Brian Daly and I look forward to your company next time on the RSPCA Australia humane food podcast.