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Protections for Australian cattle found wanting – yet again

An Australian bull pictured in a Vietnamese abattoir before slaughter. Animals Australia, CC BY

The latest horrific footage of the appalling treatment of cattle sent for slaughter in the live export trade is a fresh indictment of Australian authorities.

Animals Australia has exposed that in Vietnam cattle are being sledge-hammered to death and subjected to other brutal practices.

The Australian public will be sickened by these revelations – years after protections were supposed to have been put in place.

Agriculture Minister Barnaby Joyce earlier in the election campaign attacked Labor’s suspension of the live cattle trade to Indonesia. The new footage brings the message that while the minister was slagging off at his political opponents, Joyce and his department as well as the industry were falling down on their responsibilities to ensure proper standards.

Animals Australia’s investigators have documented “extensive live export regulation breaches throughout Vietnam”. They found the sledge-hammering to death of Australian cattle, and “Australian cattle in 11 non-accredited abattoirs, including in a notorious slaughter village where sledge-hammering and water-forcing [pouring water into the cattle with a hose shortly before slaughter to illegally increase the meat weight] are prevalent”.

Joyce said on Thursday night that his department had begun an investigation immediately after receiving the complaint and has met with Vietnamese authorities, which were also inquiring into the allegations.

He said the abattoir at the centre of the most serious allegation was a non-approved facility and it was alleged that Australian cattle were being supplied there “against Australia’s strict rules”.

The industry has suspended the supply of cattle to three abattoirs.

Alison Penfold, CEO of the Australian Livestock Exporters’ Council – chaired by former Labor primary industries minister Simon Crean – said said she couldn’t “believe we are back here again after all the work that has gone into control and traceability of Australian cattle over the past 12 months in Vietnam”. That work followed earlier evidence of cruelty.

Penfold said that a plan has been announced in April 2015 to try to address “emerging concerns” as the Vietnamese market grew rapidly.

However elaborate that plan, it has clearly not been adequate.

Animals Australia’s Lyn White argues the agriculture department is “hopelessly conflicted” between policing and promoting the export trade. “Nobody can claim they didn’t know it was happening – the exporters knew, the department knew and the minister knew,” she said.

White says an independent office of animal welfare is needed within the attorney-general’s department so it can investigate, prosecute and withdraw licences, and also calls for a full judicial review of the live export industry.

Labor is promising if elected to review the regulatory regime that it put in place five years ago, including its sanctions. It also says it would appoint an inspector-general of animal welfare, as well as have the minister make quarterly reports to parliament on the live export trade, including any allegations or investigation of animal cruelty.

Joyce has been desperate to open new markets and expand existing ones. While the government and industry profess concern that there should be proper control and supervision of stock through the supply chain of the trade, it’s clear they are unable to match their words with effective action.

One has to ask why Animals Australia seems to have a better grasp of what’s going on than the industry, the government or the minister. This has been the case for years. Either those who should be policing standards are incompetent, or animal welfare is pushed down the list of priorities until those supposedly responsible are called out.

Coalition politicians are all too ready to see animal welfare as one of those issues promoted by Greens or independents – unless they feel the public’s anger, when pictures come to light.

The gold standard would be for Australia to phase out of the live export industry instead - in the case of cattle, having processing done in northern Australia. But given this is not going to happen, at the very least the government and industry should raise its oversight ability to the competency displayed by Animals Australia.

Postscript: By chance, Malcolm Turnbull and Joyce are due to be campaigning together on Friday.

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