Currently, about one in 12 cattle born in Australia is exported alive to be slaughtered in a foreign country. But Australia’s live export industry is looking to expand significantly, partly spurred on by a major drought in the United States last year, which reduced the breeding herd dramatically.
One representative of the Australian live export industry recently commented that “there is a strong possibility (live exports) could become the dominant market for (cattle) producers”.
Speaking at a recent beef industry meeting in Rockhampton, Wellard Rural Exports Asia general manager Scot Braithwaite explained that there has been considerable investment in the live export industry, with more than A$570 million spent on live export ships in the past 10 years. He even cast doubt on Australia’s ability to sustain a processing industry in the long term, suggesting that it could go the way of the car and steel industries.
Meanwhile, federal agriculture minister Barnaby Joyce has thrown his weight behind a major new export facility in Queensland.
Another driving force is the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement between Australia and the United States. Although not yet ratified, it aims to eliminate all export taxes for agricultural goods. This would overcome one hurdle to the development of a live export industry between the two countries.
Higher welfare standards
However, the US market is very different to the Asian markets that Australia’s live exporters are used to supplying.
The basic slaughtering standards, limited health restrictions and poor capacity to offload and transport the animals in Asia mean that animal welfare standards are questionable. In 2011 Australian live cattle exports to Indonesia were halted after an explosive report of animal cruelty in local abattoirs.
Steve Kay, editor of the US marketing magazine Cattle Buyers Weekly, believes the logistical difficulties in importing cattle to the US are too great.
Australian cattle would probably have to enter the United States via Mexico or Canada because cattle can only enter US ports on US-flagged ships. Kay also believes the US cattle herd is recovering rapidly after the drought. Major health requirements would also have to be met, as well as extensive traceability legislation.
Furthermore, the United States is one of several countries around the world where beef consumption has actually been declining, down almost 40% over the past 40 years.
No reasons for live exports to US
The reasons given for exporting live cattle export to Asia (as opposed to carcasses butchered in Australia) don’t apply to the United States.
The argument that live cattle export is the best way to deliver protein to the undernourished people of Asia isn’t relevant for people in the United States, who consistently top the world’s obesity league.
The argument that livestock are needed for religious festivals also doesn’t hold up. There is no American equivalent of the Islamic Eid-al-Addha feast at the end of Ramadan, in which meat is distributed to the poor. The Australian live export industry has dubbed this “charity slaughtering”.
Unlike many villagers in Indonesia, who buy their meat daily in “wet markets”, the United States has sufficient refrigeration capacity for storing meat safely.
Cattle suffer during shipping
Consumers are concerned about the ethics of producing beef. There are welfare problems in feedlotting and transporting cattle long distances, raising animals creates large amounts of greenhouse gas, and animal protein is an inefficient use of energy and water.
A typical shipping journey from Australia to Indonesia takes six days, but it would take 20-25 days to reach the United States.
During the journey, ammonia from the animals’ accumulating faeces and urine will gradually rise in the atmosphere, causing cattle to cry, cough and develop lung and eye infections.
Heat stress is likely to affect the cattle as they enter the Gulf of Mexico. Most ships would leave Australia in winter and enter the Gulf in summer, when daytime temperatures are too hot (average 32C) and humid (about 75%) for cattle, with little respite at night.
The average mortality of Australian cattle at sea over the last five years was 0.13%.
Over a six-day journey this is 0.022% per day. Mortality would therefore be about 0.52% for a 24-day journey to the United States.
In comparison, cattle in a feedlots have a mortality rate of less than 1% over a period of approximately 90 days, or 0.011% per day. This is less than half the mortality rate at sea.
If the trade builds up to one exporter’s anticipated level of 200,000 per year, we can expect 1,040 animals to die during the voyage. If they had remained in Australia in a feedlot for this period, we would expect just 533 animals to die.
Thus we can predict that roughly 507 animals would die unnecessarily each year as a result of exporting cattle alive to the United States.
However, in the light of the many welfare problems on the voyage and the ongoing travel, feedlotting and slaughter in the United States, this might be a relief to the animals concerned.
Consumers want to be ethical
It is hard to imagine that the American public would willingly accept beef from animals that have suffered this much.
The Australian cattle industry believes that it can gain public acceptability simply by changing the marketing message. This can only be achieved by keeping quiet about suspected animal welfare issues in the live export trade.
More research needs to be undertaken so consumers can make an informed choice about the ethics of live exported meat.
No-one has ever measured stress levels in cattle undertaking long distance shipments. My research colleagues have been trying to gain permission to measure these, but so far none of the exporters are willing. We are currently exploring the possibility of receiving funds from the Malaysian government to investigate the issue, which Malaysia sees as a necessary step before it embarks on a major beef importation program.
Although last week the rhetoric was flowing thick and fast at Rockhampton’s Beef Week about Australia growing its live export industry into the United States, turning this into practice may prove beyond even the most determined of governments.
Fortunately for the animals’ welfare, American beef farmers can expect most of their competition from Australia to arrive as carcasses rather than as live animals on a ship.