Recent revelations about the sledgehammering to death of what seem to be Australian cattle in Vietnam provide further evidence of the government’s inability to control how exported livestock are slaughtered overseas.
An Animals Australia investigation reported by ABC’s 7.30 showed what are reportedly Australian cattle being slaughtered in three abattoirs. Australia has suspended trade to the facilities while they are investigated.
The government’s tool to try to ensure humane slaughter is known as the Export Supply Chain Assurance Scheme (ESCAS). This requires cattle to be killed in accordance with World Animal Health Organisation standards. Killing cattle by hitting with a sledgehammer, although common practice in Vietnam, is not allowed by the standards.
The other requirements of ESCAS offer little reassurance to the Australian community that welfare will be safeguarded. Under the standards, cattle must be traced. This means we should know which cattle are Australian, and be able to control and audit the supply chain.
There are problems with this model. Supply-chain control is desirable but potentially contravenes the principles of the World Trade Organisation. Auditing is only as good as the manner in which it is undertaken, and there has been much recent debate about this.
But beyond problems with Australian regulations, there are broader issues with sending live cattle overseas, and to Vietnam in particular.
What do people in Vietnam think about slaughter?
Vietnam is a relatively poor country, and has been even poorer in its recent history. There is little culture of caring for animal welfare when human welfare is the primary concern. Of even greater concern regarding the animals is the fact that Vietnam now acts as a staging post for Australian cattle that are ultimately en route to China and other Asian markets.
In 2015, Australia exported 311,523 cattle to Vietnam, up from 3,353 in 2012. That’s a hundred-fold increase in just three years. Increasingly these exports are of young “feeder” cattle, which need an additional period of feeding before they are ready for slaughter.
At the Centre for Animal Welfare and Ethics (CAWE) at the University of Queensland, we have led a World Animal Health Organisation project to run training courses in Vietnam on livestock slaughter last year. This included research into Vietnamese attitudes to livestock slaughter, in comparison with other Southeast and East Asian countries.
For a forthcoming scientific paper, we surveyed future stakeholders in the industry – veterinary and animal science students. We found that those in Vietnam are more accepting of livestock transport by ship and road than those in China, Malaysia and Thailand. They also more readily agree that exporting livestock from a developed country to developing countries is acceptable.
In another survey, we investigated attitudes of those directly involved in the livestock slaughter and transport industry in Vietnam, Malaysia, Thailand and China. Over 1,000 respondents took part, including 210 from Vietnam.
Similar to respondents from China, Vietnamese respondents were not confident that they could make improvements to the welfare of animals in their care, whereas those from Malaysia and Thailand were. Vietnamese respondents had the least agreement with the survey statement: “In the past I have tried to make improvements to the welfare of the animals in my care.”
In Malaysia, respondents identified religious beliefs as one of the motivations for improving slaughter. For Vietnamese respondents, the main factors were the law, their knowledge, the attitudes of co-workers and company approval.
Vietnamese respondents also rated having the right tools and resources as less important in welfare improvement. This suggests that lack of access to stunning machines isn’t a major factor.
While all respondents thought that welfare improvements would work best when driven by legislation and government, those in Vietnam (and China) also thought that the police played an important role.
Phasing out live export
Our surveys indicate the major differences between the attitudes of the cattle industry in Vietnam and Australia. The police play almost no role in livestock welfare improvement in Australian abattoirs, yet they are considered an important player in Vietnam. Unlike Muslim countries, there is no argument in Vietnam that exports support religious festivals.
By sending young cattle to Vietnam, the Australian agriculture industry is losing out on jobs from growing them to a mature weight and processing them before sending them overseas. There is now a state-of-the-art killing and processing facility in Darwin to achieve this; the first new cattle abattoir to be built in Australia in 50 years.
The latest revelations should act as a signal that Australia should phase out the export of livestock, not immediately, but over five to ten years. This would enable exporters to build trade relations for meat export, delivering a high-quality product to overseas markets for the benefit of Australian producers, the consumers and the Australian conscience.