When one thinks of the Australian outback, the image of wide open and green pastures comes to mind, with cattle roaming freely and an Aussie farmer sitting on his porch with a cup of tea, his canine companion asleep at his feet. The farmer's sheep and cattle are eventually mustered, packed onto trucks or trains and taken to a sea port. They are then ushered on to boats and cramped living quarters, where they will spend up to 35 days. Once arriving in Asia or the Middle East, they will spend 48 hours without food or water to meet weight and trade requirements. Finally, they are taken to the abattoir and slaughtered, often while still fully conscious. While Australia promotes the use of stunning prior to slaughter, a humane death is far from guaranteed in export countries. Once the animals are on foreign soil, there is little that can be done by the Australian Government to ensure animals are treated humanely.
Australians care deeply about the welfare of animals. A recent survey showed that 74% would vote for a political candidate if they promised to end the live export trade (See Voiceless report). While Aussie farmers also care about the treatment of their livestock, it is however, not likely that they would be inclined to vote this way, as the live export trade generates approximately $996.5 million for the Australian economy (see the National Farmers' Federation website). While Australian farmers condemn the cruel treatment of Australian sheep and cattle, they continue to support the live export trade.
On 30 May 2011, the live export trade in Australia was suspended for three months after the release of shocking reports of animal abuse in Indonesian abattoirs. A new regime, the Export Supply Chain Assurance Scheme ('ESCAS') was then introduced in order to combat the regulatory problems with the live export trade.
Animal activist and welfare organisations in Australia have called for an outright ban of the live export trade. Supporters of the ban claim that live export could be phased out and replaced by the frozen or chilled meat industry. This would primarily ensure that animals were killed within Australia and therefore subject to Australian animal welfare laws. In contrast, Australian farmers claim that the Middle East and Asian markets prefer freshly slaughtered meat and therefore the meat processing industry would not sufficiently replace the financial gain currently obtained from the live export trade.
The legislation governing the live export regime is complex, spanning Commonwealth and state legislation, as well as Industry Codes of Practice and Memorandums of Understanding between export countries and Australia. The regime has become more stringent after a 2003 government-commissioned report ('the Keniry Report') suggested that there were widespread and systemic problems within the industry. Before then, live export was predominantly governed by a self-regulatory scheme - that is, industry bodies such as Livecorp and Meat & Livestock Australia regulated and assessed compliance with the scheme.
In the ten years since the Keniry report, there have been significant changes made to the live export regime. Despite this, in May 2013, the trade to Egypt was suspended after footage was obtained showing serious malpractice and cruel treatment towards Australian cattle in Egyptian abattoirs. This was the second time live export to Egypt had been halted, for in 2006 it was banned for four years when footage emerged of cattle having their tendons slashed before being slaughtered. It is unlikely that the ban on live export to Egypt will be lifted until the ESCAS system can be put in place.
While the legislative regime governing live export has been improved in the last few years, it is still in much need of reform if the Australian Government wants to take the issue of animal welfare seriously.