The Federal Government’s move to ban live cattle exports to a handful of Indonesian abattoirs will not, in the long term, end the inhumane slaughtering practices revealed in Monday’s Four Corners report.
Australian cattle will continue to be exported to other Indonesian abattoirs that may have equally bad practices, so in the short term Australia should immediately send inspectors to accompany all cattle export shipments.
This will ensure that scenes such as the ones we witnessed in the report do not continue occur.
The Australian live export industry is divided between sheep, which are exported from the south-west of the country via Fremantle, and cattle exported from the northern ports.
In 2009, approximately 3 million sheep were exported to the Middle East and almost one million cattle were exported, with the majority (74%) going to Indonesia.
More than 700,000 animals are sent to Indonesia annually, which generates nearly three quarters of a billion dollars for the Australian economy. Export ports include Brisbane, Broome, Townsville and Darwin.
If the live export trade is banned now, there will be immediate harmful consequences for animals that would have otherwise been exported to Indonesia.
Australian producers will be unable to provide for these animals from their feedstocks, and they would be reluctant or unable to purchase supplementary feed, as the price of cattle would rapidly decline.
This would potentially create welfare problems even greater than the ones we have seen in Indonesia.
Instead, after an agreed time Australia should only send cattle to Indonesian abattoirs that agree to stun their cattle prior to slaughter.
Stunning involves a sharp blow to the back of the head, which renders the animal unconscious.
This will take time for permanent implementation, probably six months to nine months at least, because the cattle have to be effectively restrained before the stunning device is applied.
Muslim clerics will argue that this is not Halal meat, because the animals are not being killed by a cut to the throat, in which case they must obtain their meat from other sources.
The Koran provides overwhelming and copious support for good treatment of animals, but percussion stunning devices were not available when it was written and it did not have to deal with the issue of very large Australian cattle that the handlers have obvious difficulty controlling.
Some people argue that if Australia doesn’t send cattle to Indonesia they will be obtained from countries with worse welfare standards than ours.
In my view, this is not an argument to perpetuate the trade. We should do what we think is morally justifiable, and this does not include sanctioning inhumane practices.
The World Animal Health Organisation has global sea-transport standards and these will apply to Indonesia as well as likely cattle suppliers, such as Brazil.
Both Indonesia and Brazil are members of the organisation.
The medium-term solution is that abattoirs must be rapidly established in northern Australia to process cattle coming out of that region.
This will probably take at least two years, but it must be done.
Two surveys I have organised have found that on average people in parts of Asia have less concern for animal welfare and rights than those in developed western countries, and a major reason is because of their poor economic circumstances.
This is unlikely to change, but this incident may act as a catalyst for us to consider whether we offer enough assistance to the emerging economy of Indonesia.
In the long term, there are food shortages looming in Asia, and land for food production will be increasingly in short supply globally.
There are areas of northern Australia that can, with sufficient infrastructural support and investment, be used much more efficiently for food production than extensive cattle production.
However, that is a debate for another day as we have a crisis affecting our valued cattle producers in the north of this country that must be addressed.
There has been much criticism of how cattle producers such as Meat and Livestock Australia and Livecorp have handled their task of researching and advancing the welfare of exported animals.
In 2005, following the Cormo Express disaster in which over 5000 sheep died and many more suffered after a consignment was rejected by Saudi Arabian authorities, I called for openness on the part of the industry to inspection and review.
Regrettably I cannot confirm that my research group at the University of Queensland has always found this to be the case.
We have been denied access to ships to monitor animal stress levels, and even had difficulties publishing the work that we did do with industry support.
In 2008 I made a trip around Australia visiting 50 cattle and sheep properties to talk about animal welfare issues and experienced significant difficulties getting access to producers in northern Australia.
It was clear that many of the producers that I visited knew that they were extremely vulnerable to any investigation of the way in which their exported animals were treated in Indonesia.
Because of this, plans have already been considered for abattoirs in Broome and Darwin.
Six years ago I applied to MLA and Livecorp, on their request, for funds to study these overseas abattoir practices, including the requirement for a sharp knife to sever the head of the animals.
The application was turned down. MLA and Livecorp knew that abattoir practices in the countries to which they exported animals were poor, but their response was insufficient.
They developed and installed casting boxes in some abattoirs that did not meet basic animal welfare standards and attempts to train abattoir operators to look after their animals’ welfare better were poor.
Hence we must now ensure that the cattle are slaughtered in Australia.
The scenes that we saw in the Four Corners report were understandably distressing, but we should also remember that there are also harmful practices within the domestic livestock industry, and we should seek to solve these issues just as enthusiastically as the problems in Indonesia.
Unwanted dairy (bobby) calves are sent on trucks to slaughter at just a week of age without food or water.
Cattle are dehorned without anaesthetic, they may die from heat stress, flood or starvation on properties, or they may be transported long distances within Australia to our own abattoirs without food or water.
Perhaps the best thing to come out of the exposé in Indonesia would be a widespread review and upgrade of the welfare of Australian cattle, from birth to death.