The process of developing a concise, but sufficiently comprehensive, set of indicators to measure animal welfare outcomes in livestock exports is challenging.
There are two key difficulties.
One is that "welfare" is multi-dimensional.
It needs to take into account both physical and mental state, many of the measures are subjective and many - on their own - are not a true reflection of "welfare".
On top of this, environmental factors may affect the welfare of individual animals differently - similarly to some people loving life in the tropics and others not being able to stand the heat.
When the livestock export industry started exploring animal welfare indicators some years ago, one report suggested 364 options for the sector to consider.
More recent research assessed 80 potential indicators.
The government's recent review of shipboard standards, referred to as the Australian Standards for the Export of Livestock (ASEL), adopted up to 50 welfare measures.
The other main difficulty in measuring welfare is that the weighting given by community members to each aspect of welfare, and to welfare itself against other issues - including human wellbeing - is different.
In the words of Hugh Millar*, who is an animal health and welfare specialist and part of an independent technical expert group for the livestock export regulator: "animal welfare - though quite amenable to scientific study - is also founded in values-based ideas about what people believe to be more or less desirable. There is no absolute truth".
Mortality rate, which has traditionally been used to measure welfare outcomes in live exports, has been rightly criticised when used as a sole indicator.
But this should not detract from mortality remaining the central animal welfare indicator.
As a measure, it is indisputable - and increased mortalities are associated with many health and welfare issues.
A research goal of LiveCorp has been to supplement mortalities data by providing a broader picture of the animal's welfare state.
Among other factors, this must provide insights into the level of comfort and discomfort, appropriate nutrition, absence of prolonged thirst and provision of husbandry and veterinary care.
As a result of several years of research, LiveCorp now has a comprehensive and standardised set of data being collected about a range of animal welfare indicators that cover aspects of the animals themselves, their environment and shipboard management practices.
This work has fed into multiple regulatory reviews of welfare standards, and the department - as regulator - last year determined the measures it required to be collected and reported on for each livestock voyage from Australia.
LiveCorp research has not only assisted in determining the welfare measures to be collected, but has also streamlined the data-gathering process by setting up its collaborative LIVEXCollect data collection system.
This provides the templates to standardise the way the data is collected to enhance accuracy and support efficiencies.
Collecting welfare data in a systematic way will allow a greater level of analysis and transparency for the industry.
It is ground-breaking and something that has never before done at this scale in livestock transport.
While we still may not find an "absolute truth", more information can only help all parties with an interest in the industry - from the regulator to the community - move toward a definition of "good performance" when it comes to animal welfare.
*REFERENCE: Final project report for Australian Eggs: A Review of Animal Welfare Policy and Assessment Frameworks, July 2018: https://www.australianeggs.org.au/what-we-do/leading-research/a-review-of-animal-welfare-policy-and-assessment-frameworks
- Sam Brown, LiveCorp chief executive officer