The Welfare of Australian Livestock Transported by Sea
In an extensive editorial / literature review in The Veterinary Journal, authors Susan Foster and Karen Overall comprehensively outline current challenges of “animal welfare” in the transport of Australian livestock. Through review and analysis of public policy, reported statistics, and veterinary reports, Foster and Overall paint a rather grim picture of what it means to be an Australian sheep or cow, transported live for weeks at a time to be slaughtered upon arrival in South-East Asia, China, and the Middle East. Though the authors stop short of saying the practice should be ended, they offer strong evidence that current “welfare” measures are woefully inadequate.
Australia has the distinction of being the largest exporter of livestock in the world, exporting nearly 3 million sheep and cows in 2012. The journeys by boat last anywhere from from a couple of weeks to gruelling voyages of up to 42 days. Indeed, as Foster and Overall note: “Australia’s live export trade has been controversial since its inception in the mid-1970s due to ongoing animal welfare issues on live export ships and in importing countries.” However, even though the issue has been controversial, like many animal issues, the economic value of exported livestock have muddied the waters when it comes to welfare. “The conflict of interest between promotion of a lucrative trade and regulation of that trade was recognised in a recent move in Australia to establish an Independent Office of Animal Welfare,” say Forster and Overall, but they note that “it is not surprising that the Australian Government’s view of welfare of exported Australian livestock, presented by the Chief Veterinary Officer, is positive.” The lack of independent reporting on the industry has “long been recognised as problematic by veterinarians and animal welfare organisations and has been discussed in government investigations,” though it seems that recognition of the problem has not been enough to ameliorate the situation.
It is not just that the government of Australia is resisting improvement: instead, it seems that the government actively sees the “politics of welfare issues” as a direct challenge to the livestock export market. In 2010, the Western Australian government released analysis of the market and of the 16 “market threats” that they identified, “six directly or indirectly related to concerns about and politics of welfare issues. These were: (1) aberrant behaviour by exporters – pregnant ewes, cows calving en route, incorrect stock selection; (2) welfare issues in some countries; (3) inappropriate scientific handling of research data; (4) media coverage of domestic issues; (5) impact of sheep ship incidents and Australian policy, and (6) inability of some shippers to meet export standards.” Note that “media coverage” and “the impact of sheep ship incidents” on policy make the list, seeming to indicate that the government sees these issues as a having a negative influence on the market, while also indicating their reticence to change so that media would not have issues to cover, or so that fewer (or no) sheep ship incidents might happen. Forster and Overall note that, in addition to the numerous welfare issues and the government’s resistance to change, the dearth of data is perhaps the most pernicious aspect of trying to make any improvements.
Forster and Overall make some succinct recommendations for improvements, noting mainly that “until historic and ongoing welfare problems such as heat stress, ovine inanition/salmonellosis complex and scabby mouth are rigorously addressed and there are penalties imposed for breaching Australian Standards for Export of Livestock (ASEL), many will continue to have concerns for the welfare of Australian animals exported by sea.” In their view, addressing these specific issues requires an approach “underpinned by data from independent peer-reviewed scientific research,” which is not currently the case. Again, though they stop short of decrying the practice of live export altogether, they hope that the Australian government “will recognise that arbitrarily defined mortality limits and weight gain in livestock are not adequate measures of animal welfare by themselves and that published scientific studies are required.” Perhaps when such scientific studies are undertaken, the true ethical viability of the live export industry can be questioned more forcefully by the authors.