Brian Daly interviews RSPCA Australia’s Scientific Officer Dr Sarah Babington and Senior Scientific Officer (Farm Animals) Melina Tensen, to find out more about farm animal transportation in Australia.
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Opening quote: If we're paying what we're paying now, they're just getting the stock standard transport treatment. Whereas if we were willing to pay more, and give them the goal class experience, we'd not only have better welfare for these animals, and less stress, but we'd also get better production and better quality.
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Brian: Hello, and welcome to RSPCA Australia's humane food podcast. My name is Brian Daly and today we're discussing the transport of farm animals within Australia. And joining me for this topic, we have two members of the science team from RSPCA Australia, senior scientific officer for farm animals Melina Tensen and scientific officer for farm animals, Sarah Babington. Welcome to the podcast Melina and Sarah.
Melina & Sarah: Thanks, Brian. Thank you.
Brian: Now we're a notorious nation of city dwellers in Australia but if you have ventured out beyond the city limits from time to time, you would have probably at some stage past a truck laden with livestock, cattle, sheep, chickens and so on. Melina can you tell us how and why farm animals are transported in Australia and what the welfare implications for these animals?
Melina: Well, the main reason that we farm animals is for food. So, farm animals are raised for food. And in order to get them from the paddock where they're raised, to our plates, they obviously need to be transported and they're transported most often to an abattoir where they're killed. So, in that respect, transport is a really important part of the supply chain, but it's also stressful for animals. As you can imagine cattle and sheep that are reared in paddocks, they have to be mustered, collected, yarded and then placed on the truck. And in the case of chickens who are raised in large sheds they need to be caught and also put in crates or trays and then transported by truck to the abattoirs. So, in this process, animals are often in unfamiliar environments, they may find themselves in yards with unfamiliar animals, and there's people that they're not used to. Often there might be overcrowding on the truck. And obviously, there's also long periods of time where they don't have access to water because there's no water on these trucks. And obviously no access to food as well. So generally, transport is stressful for farm animals.
Brian: And Sarah, I imagine that Australia's vast expanses and the harsh climate would pose additional challenges to this?
Sarah: Yes, of course. So, as we know, Australia is quite a large country and a lot of cities are on, I guess, the outside of the country. So, this often means animals have to endure long distances and long travel times to get to their destinations. And obviously, in the summer months, as we all know, it gets really hot. So, this actually means that animals are at a higher risk of getting things like heat stress, because they're obviously stocked together really closely on trucks, they don't have shade, there's poor ventilation, and they don't have access to water.
Brian: Yeah. So there are specific limits on how long you can transport these animals for, without, say food or water, as you said?
Sarah: Yes, there is the land transport of livestock standards and guidelines, give some limitations on the maximum time that animals cannot have food or water. So, things like cattle and sheep, it can be up to 48 hours. Whereas for chickens, 24 hours, but obviously, this is still a really long time. And it's kind of the maximum limit where these animals can't eat or drink and after that, you can get really negative consequences.
Brian: Yeah, I'm sure and I mean, obviously then Melina the best practice is to have the shorter trip as possible.
Melina: Yes, I mean, certainly our RSPCA policy is that farm animals should be transported the shortest distance possible. And if they are to be killed for slaughter, then transport to the nearest possible abattoir is preferable, but that's not always possible in Australia.
Brian: So, if it is a longer distance and they do hit those limits, they have to stop, then obviously let them out some way for a break. There's a minimum amount of time that they have to be given a break for once they once they get out. Is that right?
Melina: Yeah, that's right. So, with the long distances in Australia, we do have a maximum time that, for example, cattle and sheep are allowed to be transported and that's 48 hours off water. So that doesn't mean that they spend 48 hours on a truck. But it does mean that from the time that they're mustered to ideally the time that they reach their destination, that can't be longer than 48 hours off water if the journey is so long. For example, from Western Australia to South Australia, or further distances that might require a journey longer than 48 hours, then yes, animals need to be offloaded. And this is called a spell. And they need to be rested for 36 hours. And that means that they have to have access to water, they need to have something to eat, and they need to be able to lie down so they can rest properly. Now with chickens and layer hens, they don't normally require a break during transport as where they're raised in the sheds, that's usually pretty close to the abattoirs. It could be a journey of two to three hours. So, despite their transport limit being 24 hours, most chickens, if not all, arrive at their destination much earlier than that. And I guess the key thing to mention is that before animals embark on a journey that they're fit to load, so the land transport standards and guidelines require that animals meet a number of criteria that then determines whether they're able to be transported be loaded on the truck and fit for the intended journey. So, they basically need to be assessed before they're put on a truck or before they're loaded into crates and transported to an abattoir. And there's a fit to load guide available that allows both producers and transporters to assess animals that may or may not be fit to load. And when we're talking about fit to load, we're talking about an animal needs to be able to walk properly, so they need to be able to bare weight on all their legs. They shouldn't have any visible injuries. Obviously, they shouldn't be severely dehydrated or emaciated, in other words, too skinny and they need to be able to see where they're going. So, they can't be blind, and also they're not allowed to be heavily pregnant. So, that’s the criteria that determines whether an animal can be transported or not.
Brian: Because it's stressful enough if you're a healthy animal. Let alone if you're not well in the first place. And also, I guess, aligned to that is, you know, so when they're being assessed the handling of the animals when they're being loaded and unloaded would be a significant part of, of their welfare aspect as well I imagine.
Sarah: Yes, yeah handlings critical. I mean, for these animals, you know, it's not like they're going on a road trip like we would go on, where you've got your snacks and you've got your music and your podcasts and it's all happy and dandy. For the animals, it's actually a very stressful process. So that's why it's so critical to have low stress handling. And it's really important that the way that they're loaded and the way that they're unloaded, is done in the least stressful way and that they've got really good facilities and race designs for when those animals are being taken on and off vehicles. And another thing that's commonly used, unfortunately, is electric prodders, which is like a probe with an electric bit at the end that gives the animals a small electric shock. And that's usually used with cattle and livestock to help move them on. However, this is obviously really bad for their welfare. And it's often used as an excuse for bad handling techniques. So, the standards and guidelines, the land transport ones, they only allow them to be used in adult cattle, sheep and pigs at transport for unloading and loading. However, we obviously believe that with good handling techniques, there shouldn't be a need to use these type of products at all. And instead, alternative methods should be used.
Brian: Yes, because reading through the legislation, there's very much an emphasis on the limits and how long they can go without water, but surely today when consumers are demanding higher welfare for farm animals, we should be looking at how we can give these animals the best possible welfare outcomes, not just avoid the worst case scenarios. Is that what you are aiming for?
Sarah: Yes, of course. So, the standards and guidelines, you're absolutely correct are very much focused on the limits and what's the maximum that we should push until welfare becomes bad. But at RSPCA Australia we believe good welfare is actually about promoting welfare and how we can make it beneficial, rather than how far can we push an animal.
Brian: So, the Australian animal welfare standards for the land transport of livestock, they came out in 2012 is the industry largely abiding by these standards now?
Melina: Well, these standards are now legal requirements so they're enforceable and they're enforceable in all states and territories except Western Australia, who is lagging behind in implementation of these standards, but they're working on that at the moment. So the standards they cover general issues like who's responsible for the animal at what part of the supply chain, so on farm, during transport and at the final destination, it also covers things like the competency of the people handling animals, the truck is maintained properly, and the selection and preparation of animals and whether they fit to load and indeed also euthanasia. So, if something happens to the animal during the journey, that there are contingencies in place that make sure that the animal can be humanely killed, if that's required. And the standards they have a general section but there's also species-specific standards. And it's in these species-specific standards where things like time off water are covered. So, for cattle and sheep, that's 48 hours, for chicken and other poultry it's 24 hours etc. There is a fit to load guide available, which has recently been reviewed. And so, by now, producers and transporters, and everyone in the supply chain should have a good idea of what these requirements are. And essentially, if in doubt, leave it out. So that means if you have any concerns about the capacity of an animal to complete the journey, then that animal should not be loaded on the truck.
Brian: You guys work very closely with industry and government on advising and input into legislation, as you did with the original standards in 2012. I guess that you're always talking with these bodies to continually improve these standards. And where would you like to see these standards raised to?
Melina: So yes, we were involved in in the development of the land transport standards when they were being converted from a model code to regulated standards which they are now. So, a lot of it comes down to monitoring and enforcement of the standards as they exist today. And in WA, for example, the standards still haven't been regulated, they're still in the process of doing that now. So what we want is, is consistency across states and territories so that standards are monitored and enforced in a similar way, regardless of where you are in the country, because obviously, with these large journeys, you're going to be crossing state or territory borders. Certainly, when we were involved in the development of the standards, we were pushing for much lower time off water limits. 48 hours for cattle and sheep, in our view, is too long, to be off water and indeed to be up on a truck or experiencing a long journey without water, without feed. And also, I guess in terms of the time off water issue, the standards only require that time of water is recorded for journeys that are expected to exceed 24 hours. And our view is that if time off water, because it's such an important issue, time off water should be recorded, regardless of the time that the journey is going to take. So as soon as you, as a transporter, pick up animals, you note down the time that they last that access to water. And when you deliver those animals, the receiver notes down the time that the animals have access to water again, because it's only that way that we can monitor exactly what's going on, and whether indeed, transporters are adhering to the standards.
Brian: And when you're talking about the standards, are there different standards for say calves or not? Melina we spoke last series about the bobby calves, I imagine that there'd be a section on looking at how we can treat them better?
Melina: That's right so for, for bobby calves or calves that are less than 30 days old and without their mothers, they shouldn't be transported until they're at least five days old. And we know that not happening. We know that calves are being transported at earlier ages. But also, from an animal welfare perspective, the RSPCA’s view has always been that those calves shouldn't be transported until they're at least 10 days old. Because there's all sorts of issues, the calf is just too young to cope with the rigors of transport. They don't have that following behaviour that older animals have, you know, we all know that sheep and cattle and even pigs will, will tend to walk together in a group, calves just don't do that. So, there's a lot of poor and inappropriate handling of young calves to try and get them to the abattoirs because that's their fate, these five year old calves, because they're male, they have no purpose in dairy industry. And, yes, they end up at the abattoir.
Brian: So, there's still a range of improvements you’d like to see across the board, obviously, in a ways, as you do work for that constant improvement of legislative standards.
Melina: And given that the transport standards were first published in 2012, we would expect a review within 10 years. So hopefully, in the next year or two, there'll be an opportunity to review those standards and indeed improve on those standards, particularly when it comes to time off water and recording time off water and general conditions for farm animals as they're being transported from their property to whatever their final destination might be.
Brian: The transport industry has a big role to play in this obviously and the Australian Trucking Association has the trucksafe animal welfare quality assurance program. Is that making a difference? Is that helping them adhere to those standards and importantly, is it helping improve animal welfare?
Melina: Well we certainly think that trucksafe is a is a great step forward and I would encourage all transporters to check out the voluntary tucksafe animal welfare module and get on board. It's basically truck safe is a is a QA program that audits accredited members on responsible trucking practices, so not only adhering to the industry code of practice, so the trucking code, but also when it comes to animals, what the animal welfare module it basically allows the truckie to demonstrate compliance with the land transport standards, so talks about proper handling and loading and unloading of livestock as well as selection of animals that are that are fit to travel. So, like I said it demonstrates compliance with the land transport standards and that's really important. At the moment, obviously not all trucksafe accredited operators transport livestock, so not all transporters would have an interest In the animal welfare module, but certainly those transporters who carry livestock on a regular basis should, as far as we're concerned, definitely consider joining the scheme. And I believe at the moment there's around 30 operators that are participating in the animal welfare module.
Brian: Because it is a big industry in Australia, isn't it?
Melina: Well, certainly trucking is a big industry in Australia, given the number of animals that are transported each year. Be that from farm to another farm, from farm to a feedlot to sale yard and obviously also to an abattoir. There's lots of animal movements happening across Australia every day.
Brian: You both work on developing the standards for the RSPCA Approved Farming Scheme. These transporting issues we've been discussing would be part of what you monitor to ensure that producers are meeting your high welfare standards. Is that correct?
Sarah: Yes, so the Approved Farming Scheme at the moment doesn't cover sheep and cattle. So, we don't cover them however, we do have meat, chickens, turkeys and pigs. So, in our standards, we cover the transport from the farm to the abattoir. Usually in meat chickens, for example, it's only a few hours. But our standards cover things like the handling of these birds, and the placement into their little transport crates, as well as the stocking density. So how many birds you put in each crate, which is really important, the loading of these crates onto the trucks and ways in which producers should be avoiding heat and cold stress of the birds while they're traveling. And then the unloading when they get to the abattoirs. So, as we've discussed before, you know, we have the national standards for land transport. So, our scheme aims to provide a higher level of welfare. So, our limits in terms of how long off water or how long travel distances can be, etc. Have a better standard than the national standards, and obviously, with the aim to promote better welfare for these animals during transport.
Brian: So, it's all part and parcel of, of ensuring that they do actually have a higher welfare than the basic legislation that allows for?
Sarah: Yes, yeah. So, the legislation, you know, as we've discussed, sets limits, whereas we're obviously aiming to promote higher welfare, rather than just setting limits on what is good and bad.
Brian: So on balance, considering, you know, our large distances and unique climate in the heat, as you mentioned before, and perhaps in comparison with other countries has a scorecard on the welfare of animals during transport and how and where do we need to improve this?
Melina: Well, if you compare Australia with the EU, for example, where they have maximum journey times of eight hours, that's just not realistic in Australia. If you think of where you know cattle properties and sheep properties are they might be quite remote and then needing to transport those animals to an abattoir which are often located in, you know, in the coastal areas, either our journeys are not realistic. But then again, our 48 hours in Australia is also a very long time to have animals on a truck. In the EU as well trucks are enclosed, and they have bedding and they have drinkers and they're climate controlled. And certainly on Australian trucks, there is no bedding, there are no drinkers and the trucks are open sided, and so animals are essentially exposed to the elements. So, but if we want to be able to manage the transport of animals in Australian conditions, particularly in the heat, then and we are able to manage ventilation on trucks and potentially these types of European trucks are an option in Australia. But we'd have to be absolutely sure that ventilation could be managed. In the land transport standards there's no prescriptive requirement in terms of the temperature at which the maximum temperature at which animals could be transported. So, if it's a 40 degree day, there's nothing really that says you're not allowed to transport animals on those in that type of weather. But of course, in the interest of animal health and animal welfare, most people would avoid transporting animals under those conditions. But I guess when it when it comes to improving the welfare of animals during transport, and having better infrastructure, better trucks, better facilities, for animals on those trucks, that all comes at a cost as well. And people need to be conscious of that if they want animal welfare to be good, from the time that the animal is born, to the time that the animal is slaughtered, then that will require an additional cost. And I guess consumers need to be willing to pay for that additional cost of improved animal welfare.
Brian: From the increase in adoption of higher welfare food by consumers, they seem to be willing to do that?
Melina: That's right. And I think the more people know about how their food is produced, from farm all the way to fork, the more inclined people are going to be to want to see better welfare, and hopefully also willingness to pay will increase. Because higher welfare doesn't come cheap,
Brian: Given that that there is a consumer demand for this product and increasing welfare, I guess it's not just from an animal welfare point of view, but from a commercial point of view. It would make sense for farmers to abide by these high standards.
Sarah: Yeah, of course. And I think in promoting welfare and by providing animals, better welfare, at least from a producer standpoint, it can actually often result in better production, which is obviously beneficial for producers. I think a good way to think about it is, you know, when you go to the cinema, if you buy a standard movie ticket, you kind of get your stock standard experience in comparison to gold class, or you know, you pay a bit more, but you get a much better experience, usually a lot happier about it. So, I guess that's a good way to think about it for animals. If we're paying what we're paying, now, they're just getting the stock standard transport treatment. Whereas if we were willing to pay more, and give them the gold class experience, we'd not only have better welfare for these animals, and less stress, but we'd also get better production and better quality, meat etc, which is obviously the purpose of producing these animals at the moment.
Brian: So, on I think that's it, I think we're, I think if we can continue pushing for this gold standard, then things would be better, a lot better for farm animals in Australia. And it sounds like you're doing a great amount of work in that area. So it's really interesting discussing these aspects of farming that are, I think, far from the front of mine of those not involved in farming, which is, you know, as we said at the outset, the majority of our city centric Australians and while I certainly growing understanding of other farming welfare issues like the need to eradicate battery cages for lighter hands, it's important to see that there is a whole range of issues that can impact animals in the farming system. And that you guys are always working on ways to continually improve the welfare outcomes for these animals. So, thanks for joining us today.
Melina: Thanks, Brian, for the opportunity.
Sarah: Thanks for having us, Brian. It was good to chat.
Brian: We've been talking today with Melina Tensen, Senior Scientific Officer and Sarah Babington, Scientific Officer for farm animals at RSPCA Australia and thank you for listening. If you would like any more information on the transport of farm animals, you can visit the farm animals section at the RSPCA Australia knowledge base at kb.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. I'm Brian Daly and I look forward to your company next time on the RSPCA Australia humane food podcast.