JOHN KERIN. Phasing out the Live Sheep Trade.

Nov 14, 2018

It is now nearly 60 years since the accelerated live sheep trade commenced from Australia to the Middle East. Early opposition to the trade came from the meatworkers union (AMIEU) in the 1970s, but has increasingly come from animal welfare groups and exposure of the cruelty in the trade (550,000 dead, 2000-2012?). After all this time it is more than evident the trade cannot be conducted without animal deaths and animal cruelty, either on ships or in slaughter by buying countries. 

The rapid increase in the price of oil in the 1970s (OPEC and the two ‘oil shocks’) triggered Middle East modernisation and precipitated the rise in Australia’s live sheep trade. Massive construction work involved the importation of thousands of ‘guest’ workers in the Middle East and created an additional demand.

With a large flock based on wool production this benefited Australian graziers because they could sell older, large wethers at a premium compared to the price paid to them for mutton, if able to be sold at all. I could never quite see that the trade held up the price in all sheep markets in Australia when we had a flock of over 170m, compared to today’s smaller flock of about 100m.The trade now is only about half of what it was at its maximum due to improvements in refrigeration, the building of electricity networks in the Middle East and the domestic demand for younger stock. Most of the older sheep were being fed to guest workers. The elites in these countries import meat from Europe and New Zealand (whose flock is meat based); Iran had ceased the live trade long ago.

The trade has been going on for centuries in the region. Australia ranks fourth out of twelve major suppliers with nearly all other suppliers being located closer to the market not having to subject sheep to adaptation to pellet feed and then being transported long distances to destinations during the hottest times of the year. Australia has never controlled the trade once sheep are on ships, which are not owned by Australia. Improvements in ship design have been slow and the instigation of the Ship Board Clinical Service, having veterinary advisers in country to give advice on sheep care in feedlots and in the abattoirs in the 1980s and the Exporter Supply Chain Assurance Scheme of 2011, has not prevented regular incidents of shipboard deaths  or continuing poor slaughter practices. None the less, when tragedies occur, or if the trade is blocked for any reason in the Middle East, it seems that it is up to Australian exporters and the industry to rectify problems. Australian governments exporters and grazing industry have worked to improve all aspects of preparation of sheep for export and the trade has been improved.

Graziers are concerned about animal welfare, regardless of what some political parties think.

Australia has improved transport, care in holding pens and loading and constant efforts have been to improve ship design, many ships of which were old car carriers before more purpose built ships were built. The death rate during transit was reduced to 2-3%, but if the average of 4 million sheep were shipped annually (1.95million now-value $250m p.a.) about 120,000 sheep were dying in transport with some ‘horror voyages’. The cost of losses in transit was absorbed by the traders due to high profit margins in customer countries. 

In the 1980s Commonwealth Government experts, concerned vets and animal ethicists were working to improve every aspect of the trade. An Animal Welfare Branch was established in the Department of Primary Industries and Energy. There are several aspects of the trade not remarked upon because of fear of offending our customers. Many of our customers have little concept of stock management and animal welfare, let alone animal cruelty. Then there are cultural/religious aspects to the trade whereby preference is given to having sheep for slaughter purchased direct from markets by individuals for morning slaughter and consumption that night, particularly during religious festivals. There was or still is a lack of enough qualified vets in customer countries to enforce requirements and enter into Memorandums of Understanding on procedures. Corruption has been rife.

Australia guarantees Halal and Kosher slaughter in Australia and the chilled trade has been growing.  We also now export about 220,000 tonnes a year of lamb to the US as well as mutton to other countries.

Once it was said that absence of refrigeration meant that animals had to be sent live,but surely that is  no longer a valid reason if you believe what you see in the modern cities on the Arabian Peninsula.

In the 1980s the trade ceased several times and a book about it was written it by Alex McGoldrick, former Australian  Ambassador to Saudi Arabia.

The reason given by Saudi and other authorities (often politically inspired) was about the alleged presence of diseases. It was apparent that bribery was involved and that some people were trying to extract rent from the trade, but impossible to prove. However, it was a bit rich for our customer authorities to stop the trade on the basis of a disease of female sheep that could ‘affect pregnant camels and women’ when we were only shipping wethers. 

Any number of reports, public and Parliamentary enquiries, understandable union pressure and protests commenced in the time of Ministers, Anthony and Street in the early 1970s and have continued until  quite recently when the latest disaster brought the issue to a head again. Many attempts have been made to increase the sale of processed lamb and mutton to our Middle Eastern customers with some but not total success.

The irresponsible decisions and resistance to an Inspector General of Animal Welfare being appointed by ex Minister Joyce has again brought the trade into public view and its problems as evidenced by the recent McCarthy Review.

Regardless of this, after nearly 60 years of never solving the ongoing challenges, the trade now needs to be phased out.

John Kerin was Minister for Primary Industry, 1983-1991.

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