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Exporting livestock for slaughter in foreign countries poses significant and unavoidable risks to animal welfare. These risks are inherent to the trade and include the stress and distress caused by loading ruminant grazing animals onto ships to be sent on long voyages and subjected to unfamiliar feed, extreme changes in climatic conditions, and unregulated handling and slaughter practices in jurisdictions that not only fail to monitor and enforce animal welfare laws, but fail to enact such laws.
The trade has been subject to multiple government and parliamentary reviews due to several major animal welfare incidents over the past decade. Additional regulatory requirements have been imposed following these reviews, but these have failed to prevent ongoing suffering and deaths. The current regulatory framework governing live exports is outlined below.
The regulatory framework
The trade is governed by a complex mix of Commonwealth legislative regimes falling under the Australian Meat and Livestock Industry Act 1997 (AMLI Act) and the Export Control Act 1982 (EC Act). Both of these regimes are administered by the Australian Government Department of Agriculture and Water Resources (DAWR). In addition to these laws, the Commonwealth Navigation Act 1912 and state-based animal welfare legislation also play a role in the regulation of the trade.
The AMLI Act provides a regime for the licensing of exporters. It prohibits the export of livestock without the appropriate licence. The Secretary of DAWR is empowered to make orders that impose certain conditions on export licences. The relevant order is the Australian Meat and Live-stock Industry (Standards) Order 2005. This Order requires licence holders to comply with the Australian Standards for the Export of Livestock (Version 2.3) 2011 (ASEL). The ASEL set out the requirements for the live export process and cover the following stages of the export chain:
The ASEL also impose reporting obligations on exporters. Exporters must notify DAWR if the mortality rate exceeds 1% for cattle or 2% for sheep. Following the high profile exposure of sheep suffering on-board live export vessels to the Middle East in 2018, the Australian Government reduced the reportable mortality rate for sheep to 1%. Since 2006 there have been at least 70 occasions where the reportable mortality level has been exceeded.
The EC Act provides a legislative framework for governing the export of ‘prescribed goods’ (including live animals) from Australia. It is responsible for approving individual consignments of animals. The administrative detail of this regime is given effect through subordinate instruments known as Export Control Orders. The primary order for the export of live animals is the Export Control (Animals) Order 2004 (EC (Animals) Order). Under the EC (Animals) Order, a person who wishes to export live animals must first be licensed under the AMLI Act, and must comply with any conditions imposed on that licence. The EC (Animals) Order outlines the process for approving consignments of livestock.
This requires exporters to submit an ‘exporter supply chain assurance system’ (ESCAS). The ESCAS was recommended by the Farmer Review in 2011 following evidence of cruel animal handling and slaughter practices in Indonesia. The ESCAS is designed to monitor the movement of livestock in importing countries to ensure the animals can be traced from export to slaughter. However, breaches of ESCAS occur frequently. Since 2012 there have been 163 reported breaches; it is not known how many go unreported. As part of the ESCAS the exporter must submit an end of processing report and a performance audit report. It is very important to note that the ESCAS only covers animals destined for slaughter – it does not cover breeder animals, which includes exports of dairy cattle.
In 2018, the EC (Animals) Order was amended to empower the Secretary of DAWR to place departmental officers on-board live export vessels to monitor conditions of transport. The Australian Government currently requires these departmental observers on all live export vessels.
The live export industry is in the process of developing a quality assurance program referred to as the Livestock Global Assurance Program as a means of demonstrating compliance with the ESCAS. If implemented, this would transfer many of the existing compliance, reporting and investigation requirements from government to industry. The RSPCA is opposed to reducing Government oversight of the live export trade.
There are a range of possible sanctions available to DAWR for dealing with breaches of the ASEL and ESCAS under the AMLI Act and EC Act. These include criminal sanctions such as fines and imprisonment and administrative sanctions such as export licence suspensions or cancellation. In practice, however, DAWR rarely utilises these regulatory mechanisms and will instead simply opt to impose further conditions on the offending exporter during future consignments.
Finally, as much of the live export process occurs within state jurisdictions, state-based animal welfare law also applies to the trade. The loading and transportation of unfit animals, as well as the inappropriate handling and treatment of animals during any stage of the live export process may be met with criminal prosecution under state welfare law.
Concerns with the regulatory framework
Despite the comprehensive nature of the regulatory framework there remain a number of fundamental concerns. These are outlined below:
These problems are fundamental to the regulatory framework and demonstrate the futility of trying to ensure acceptable animal welfare standards within the live export trade. This is why RSPCA Australia believes the live export trade is profoundly unethical and calls upon the Australian Government to commit to an ordered phase out of the trade.
If you would like to take action on this issue, please visit our live export campaign pages.