CATTLE Council of Australia President Howard Smith denies there’s any rift between beef producers and live exporters but says patience is wearing out for those at the forefront of the supply chain, impacted by animal cruelty incidents in export markets.
Mr Smith told Fairfax Agricultural Media that the ongoing public exposure of video obtained by animal rights groups and shown on ABC television, like cattle being sledgehammered in the Vietnam market, which caused controversy during the recent federal election, was testing relations.
“Every time there’s a problem with live exports it damages the brand of beef; not just live exports,” he said.
“I wouldn’t say there’s a rift between producers and exporters but certainly our patience is wearing thinner, every time there’s an incident.”
Mr Smith said “We don’t defend the indefensible on animal cruelty”.
“Animal welfare is of the highest importance to beef producers and this must also be maintained in the live export sector of the beef supply chain,” he said.
“Producers need reasonable confidence that their cattle will be looked after once they enter the supply chain.”
Mr Smith said live exporters had been given repeated opportunities to improve animal welfare practices in foreign export markets, like Vietnam or Indonesia.
But he also acknowledged there are complex cultural, commercial and ethical challenges associated with working in developing countries to make the necessary changes needed to improve welfare standards.
“I’ve been to some of those developing markets and developing countries and it’s certainly very trying when you consider the different cultures,” he said.
“Access to the Vietnam market came at a time when most of Queensland was in extreme drought and 300,000 plus cattle went into that market.
“The slaughter capacity in Australian abattoirs was overwhelmed and the Vietnam market was able to take those excess cattle, put some added competition in the cattle market and helped avoid any potential animal welfare problems here caused by the drought.
“But now, with supply down to the Vietnam market, we have a good opportunity to sit back and assess things and get it right.”
Mr Smith said the accountability and transparency of cattle exported from Australia to Vietnam under the Exporter Supply Chain Assurance System needed to be resolved.
“My argument is, if you’re not doing anything wrong, you’ve got nothing to hide, so accountability and transparency are the priority,” he said.
Mr Smith said Cattle Council had been working with the Red Meat Advisory Council and Australian Livestock Exporters' Council to make improvements and with the Department of Agriculture and Water Resources.
He also welcomed last week’s announcement by Agriculture and Water Resources Minister Barnaby Joyce that the Japanese live cattle export market had been re-opened following a biosecurity breach.
Mr Smith said Japan was an extremely important market for Australian producers; particularly feeder cattle for Wagyu beef.
“It underpins a lot of the price and even though we’re not talking hundreds of thousands, of cattle - it’s an 8000 to 10,000 head market per year - it puts a floor in the price of Wagyu feeder cattle so it was critical to get that market up and going again,” he said.
Mr Smith said the Council worked with the Department to re-open the market over the past couple of months since its closure and to reassure Japan the right biosecurity protocols were in place.
He said there would be some “fall-out” from the market’s sudden closure with some exporters caught-up with costs like demurrage cattle shipments destined for Japan.
“There would have been some commercial pain there and I don’t have any details but have heard that some people in the supply chain were losing a significant amount of money,” he said.
“When you have boats ready to export cattle but they’re tied up it can cost $20,000 per day so you can burn some serious dough.”
Ms Smith said there were also challenges for live exporters currently amid concerns about potential Foot and Mouth Diseases transfer, due to Indian buffalo meat entering the Indonesian market and also opening the market to imports from Brazil.
A departmental spokesperson said a thorough investigation of the available evidence has been undertaken of allegations raised about issues with the Vietnam market.
The spokesperson said the department had permanently applied restrictions and additional conditions on all exporters with supply chains in the specific region of Vietnam.
The department has also suspended 21 facilities in the market including three feedlots and 18 abattoirs.
“Exporters may apply for these facilities to be reinstated where evidence of compliance with ESCAS requirements can be demonstrated; to date one facility has been reinstated,” the spokesperson said.
The spokesperson said the department completed exporter control and traceability audits of all eight exporters with supply chains in Vietnam.
As a result, two exporters were directed to cease supply to the Vietnamese market until effective measures have been put in place to address animal control, traceability and verification processes.
But the department said on August 25, the suspension on one of these exporters was lifted, allowing two consignments of live cattle to be exported to Vietnam under additional conditions.
“An audit will be conducted once these consignments have been completed,” the spokesperson said.
Additional conditions have also been placed on four exporters.
“The department is continuing to closely monitor exports to Vietnam and is working with industry to ensure that the stringent animal welfare standards we require are maintained,” the spokesperson said.
“A complete regulatory compliance investigation - including a review of review information from all relevant parties, both domestic and in international supply chains -remains ongoing.”
“All livestock export regulatory compliance reports are published on the department’s website when completed.