Back to All News

Estimates: Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry

Estimates & Committees
Lee Rhiannon 17 Oct 2011

Rural Affairs and Transport Legislation Committee

Estimates hearings, 17 October 2011

Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry

  • Senator Joe Ludwig, Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry
  • Senator Bill Heffernan, Liberal Senator for New South Wales
  • Dr Conall O’Connell, Secretary
  • Dr Mark Schipp, Australian Chief Veterinary Officer, Office of the Chief Veterinary Officer
  • Ms Lee Cale, General Manager, Live Animal Exports Reform Taskforce
  • Mr Paul Morris, Acting Deputy Secretary, Live Animal Export Taskforce
  • Ms Jo Evans, Executive Manager, Trade and Market Access Division

Full transcript available here

Senator RHIANNON: Minister, I am interested in your response on plans for the future of the livestock industry. Are you aware that the Queensland Minister for Agriculture, Food and Regional Economies, Tim Mulherin, has stated:

Over-dependence on a single export market and the lack of competition for meat processing capacity … are significant issues for the industry.

Do you agree with that?

Senator Ludwig: I have a broad recollection of Minister Mulherin making a similar statement to that. I cannot recollect when and in what document it appears. But I am sure you could tell me.

Senator RHIANNON: He was making those comments publicly in July and he was talking about the need for strategically—

Senator Ludwig: As I indicated, I am sure I have read it in the same public documents that you may have read it in.

Senator RHIANNON: He talks about the need for strategically located abattoirs and how it could give access to millions of cattle in North Queensland and, obviously, the possibility of generating jobs in the area. I am interested in your thoughts on the future of the livestock industry, particularly in Northern Australia.

Senator Ludwig: More broadly, I support the continuation of the export of live animals into various markets. The actions that I have taken have clearly ensured that we now have a regulatory framework in place that ensures animal welfare outcomes. They do have elements which the industry plan lacked, including traceability. It did not have a plan that included confidence that, when the cattle or animal left Australia, it went through a supply chain that was—

Senator RHIANNON: But, Minister, my question was specifically within—

Senator Ludwig: Let me answer the question. I think it is important to put it in that frame.

Senator RHIANNON: But my question was specifically about the future of the industry within Australia.

Senator Ludwig: That is a different question. I am happy to answer that one, but that was not your primary question, which I have not finished answering. I think it is important to recognise that it is about ensuring that there is accountability, reportability and also independent auditing of the supply chain throughout the system which we now have, plus a compliance model to ensure that the supply chain is transparent and does have transparency.

In relation to your second question, I do understand that there are a range of commercial interests who are looking at establishing abattoirs across the north. There is a northern beef strategy. It is in a different portfolio to mine, but a range of work are on foot about looking at all of these options, about broadening and deepening the industry right across and in the north of Australia. These have been going on for some time. The minister responsible is Minister Crean. He is the lead minister. The lead department is the RDA. Of course, it is supported by my department in many of these issues. I am not sure that we have the relevant people here at the table, but we can add to that answer at the relevant time.

Senator RHIANNON: Thank you, Minister. Dr O'Connell, I have a question about salmonella and the sheep. Is it the case that otherwise healthy sheep carrying salmonella can be loaded undetected on to a live export vessel? I am also interested in the context, because I understand that there is a vaccine for salmonella registered for cattle that could be used for sheep prior to loading for export. If it was used, that would clearly reduce the suffering of animals with that disease. I am interested in progress in that area.

Dr O'Connell: I will pass that over the Dr Mark Schipp.

Dr Schipp: To answer the first part of your question, yes, it is possible that sheep that are not yet expressing salmonellosis will express it once they are put on board and are under stress. It is also possible for there to be rapid spread of salmonellosis within a stressed group of sheep. Once it starts in a pen, it is ideal to move affected sheep out to prevent spread to other sheep. I am not able to answer your second question on the vaccine. I do not know whether a vaccine registered for cattle is efficacious in sheep. I will have to take that on notice.

Senator RHIANNON: From what I understand about how this works presently, sheep that look as though they are in good condition are selected. We cull the scouring sheep. We have one veterinarian on board. They are provided with some antibiotics. Then, basically, we hoped for the best. That seems to be the regime that is in place. As you have acknowledged in your answer to my first question, when sheep are under stress, which is clearly the situation, there can be an outbreak of the disease, terrible suffering and the loss of the livestock. Is that the regime that we are living with at the moment?

Dr Schipp: I can answer the disease questions. I cannot go into the issue of live export conditions. I would have to call on the general manager for that area in terms of the Australian standard for export of livestock and review of that standard. But I can address your previous question.

Senator HEFFERNAN: Can I add to that? Would that explanation include the new ban that we have out of the western division in certain months of the year on live sheep export and the impact that that has had on—

Dr Schipp: I did not hear the last part, I am sorry.

Senator HEFFERNAN: As you would be aware, we now have a ban on sheep coming out of the western division for some months of the year, which is a bit of a pain in the arse to those people.

Dr Schipp: Yes.

Senator HEFFERNAN: Has that had an impact on better animal welfare? Are we on the job, in other words?

Dr Schipp: It has had positive outcomes in terms of live animal export mortalities. I take your point that it is an inconvenience for those processors.

Senator HEFFERNAN: Which the industry has worn.

Senator RHIANNON: Going back to the secretary, I understand that you have to sign off on the approval necessary for the sheep to be sourced and eventually exported. When the risk of disease outbreak cannot be acceptably addressed, how can you do that reliably?

Ms Cale: To be clear, the secretary or the secretary's delegate signs off on the approved exports program, which outlines how the sheep or other animals are to be prepared for export. Could you repeat your question, please.

Senator RHIANNON: It is specifically on that issue of the sign off. On what grounds do you sign off the approval necessary for the sheep to be sourced and exported when the risk of disease outbreak cannot be acceptably addressed?

Ms Cale: The secretary or the delegate signs off on the measures that need to be taken or the conditions that need to be followed to prepare those animals for export. Those conditions and the Australian standards for the export of livestock are such that they strive to address the welfare and health aspects of the animals to be exported.

Senator RHIANNON: But in the case of salmonellosis, because it is unknown, if the ship is infected we can have a severe outbreak and nothing can be done about it. Nothing effectively is done about it. So we have this serious problem here that your sign-off method does not take into account.

Ms Cale: The sign-off identifies how those animals are to be prepared. The inspection is a fairly important part of the process. At the stage when the AQIS-accredited veterinarians and the AQIS veterinarians inspect animals at the registered premise they can identify to the best of their ability animals that may have some—

Senator RHIANNON: But I thought that was the whole issue with this disease—that at that point the sheep present healthy but can be loaded, and the export process starts, but the disease does not manifest itself until the animals are under the stress conditions.

Ms Cale: In cases in which we do hit the mortality rate, if you like—or exceed the acceptable mortality rate—then extra conditions are often placed on the subsequent consignments. There is also, as you alluded to, vaccines or additional measures that can be taken onboard when there are signs of outbreak. Animals can be fed extra chaff et cetera to try to manage the problem at the time. But subsequent to any mortality event there can be conditions placed on the subsequent NOIs.

Senator RHIANNON: Could you please take on notice and inform us of what those conditions are?

Ms Cale: Sure.

Senator RHIANNON: Minister, I understand that a letter was written to the government by Her Royal Highness Princess Alia of Jordan saying that the broader implementation of stunning throughout the Middle East would be assisted if Australia required stunning as part of our export agreements. Could you inform the committee of whether government officials or you yourself have communicated with Princess Alia with regard to the feasibility of expanding stunning to other Middle Eastern countries?

Senator Ludwig: I might just get Paul to run through where we are up to.

Mr Morris: There has been quite a bit of communication with Princess Alia over time. What was the date of that letter?

Senator RHIANNON: I do not have the date here, I am sorry.

Mr Morris: I know from my own experience in talking to Princess Alia and from communications with her that she has been a very good advocate for animal welfare and in particular for stunning in Jordan and more broadly in the Middle East. But, as you may be aware, a number of those countries in the Middle East have quite firm views about the consistency of stunning with halal slaughter practices. So while Jordan allows stunning, a number of those other countries do not currently allow stunning. Specifically on your question, there has been quite a bit of communication with Princess Alia over a number of years around these matters.

Senator RHIANNON: Could you take it on notice to provide the committee with an update on the nature of that communication—when it happened and what the essence of the communication was?

Mr Morris: We certainly can, yes.

Senator RHIANNON: Just to stay with this issue of stunning in the Middle East, I understand that the major importers of live animals in the Middle East are also the major importers of chilled Australian meat, which has been stunned. What discussions have government officials had with these importers? You mentioned that not all countries in the Middle East, because of their varying traditions, will accept it. But I understand that the Kuwait Livestock Transport and Trading Company, Al Mawashi in Qatar and the Bahrain Livestock Company are all involved in the import of meat that has been stunned.

Mr Morris: Australia certainly exports both meat and live animals to the Middle East. At the moment they are meeting differing market demands in the Middle East, so it is likely that there will be an active trade in both animals and meat for some time to come. I understand that some of the importers are involved in meat as well as the live animal trade.

Senator RHIANNON: But the point here is about the stunning—that the processed meat is being sourced from animals for which stunning is part of the killing process.

Mr Morris: In Australia, we allow unstunned slaughter for sheep, and so—

Senator RHIANNON: But does that occur for export?

Mr Morris: We do export meat—

Senator RHIANNON: Is some of the meat that is exported sourced from unstunned animals?

Mr Morris: Yes, into the Middle East. I am talking about sheep here, because for cattle we do not have pre-slaughter stunning—but we have post-cut stunning in Australia for cattle.

Senator RHIANNON: Are you suggesting that the processed meat going into Kuwait, Qatar and Bahrain is sourced from unstunned animals?

Mr Morris: Unfortunately our data is not clear enough to indicate that for certain. We have looked at this question before. We certainly do export kosher slaughtered meat, which is unstunned meat, into Israel. At the moment, there is quite a bit of trade in unstunned slaughtered sheep, or meat, into that country. For the Middle East, we would have to see if we can double-check on exactly what the nature of the export is there, but it is possible some of it will be unstunned. Some of it may be stunned, but, as I understand it, we would have to take that on notice.

Senator HEFFERNAN: You are referring to sheep and not cattle, aren't you?

Mr Morris: Just to clarify it, we do allow unstunned slaughter of sheep in Australia. For cattle, we do allow, for ritual slaughter purposes, stunning to occur after the cut has been done, so it is a post-cut stunning. We require it in fact. So there is a slightly different situation for cattle than for sheep in Australia.

Senator RHIANNON: So you will take on notice the quantities of the chilled Australian meat that are stunned and unstunned?

Mr Morris: We will try and identify it. We have looked at that question before. If we can identify it, we will certainly advise you.

Senator RHIANNON: I understand that the DAFF budget statements provide that 100 per cent of funds have been allocated to deliver capacity building and technical assistance projects to improve animal welfare in the Middle East and south-east Asian countries through the Live Trade Animal Welfare Partnership program. Could you provide details on how these funds have been allocated between those countries?

Ms Evans: I can.

Senator RHIANNON: I am happy if you take that on notice.

Ms Evans: All of the information about the projects that have been allocated is publicly available on the web. I am happy to provide that for you in hard copy this afternoon.

Senator RHIANNON: Thank you very much. I understand that the Meat and Livestock Australia reports between 2004 and 2010 did consistently highlight significant welfare problems at the point of slaughter in Indonesia. You have explored some of these details in previous answers, but I am interested in considering the length of time that that material was being presented for. What action was taken by the department in response to such a lengthy period of information being presented to you?

Mr Morris: I think the policy over that period of time by a number of governments was to try and work with the countries we were exporting animals to to try and improve animal welfare, and so the industry and the government were closely involved in looking at how we could improve the animal welfare standards in those countries beyond where they were at the time. So there has been quite a lot of effort. But the policy at the time was towards an improvement in animal welfare.

Senator RHIANNON: If that was the policy, you would have to say that that has largely failed. Is that what you would conclude, considering the evidence that came out as a result of the Four Corners investigation?

CHAIR: I think you are asking for an opinion there, Senator Rhiannon.

Senator RHIANNON: Okay. I am happy to move on. I would just like to ask about the independent auditors. Are the newly prescribed independent auditors to be paid by the live exporters?

Mr Morris: The auditors are paid by industry. They could be paid by the exporters or they could be paid by the importers or anyone else, but not by the government.

Senator RHIANNON: Do you see there being a potential problem there? Would it have been wiser for the fee or levy to be imposed on exporters to fund the financing by government of truly independent auditors? Shouldn't that be the key thing we are aiming for here?

Senator Ludwig: They are truly independent auditors.

Senator RHIANNON: But considering their form of pay, Minister, doesn't this raise potential problems?

Senator Ludwig: These are internationally renowned organisations that do independent auditing. The underlying assumption is that you are suggesting that a payment by a particular body that is seeking the independent audit would influence their decision. I think they would reject that and I would reject that on their behalf. They do many audits outside of this industry across many industries. They are responsible for auditing, such as the AS 9000—all of those. Why would they put their independence and their auditing capability at risk. I will let the department answer it, but I find that the substance of the question throws in doubt what the independent auditor's role is. They are independent.

Senator RHIANNON: The whole era of such massive deregulation when government stepped back from having a more hands-on role certainly highlights the problem one has when such a close relationship comes when you have direct payments. Do you accept that?

Senator Ludwig: They are independent organisations. They are very large, sophisticated organisations that undertake a range of independent auditing across the globe. As a consequence of that I could not imagine where they would risk or jeopardise a small piece of a small contract for the sake of their international reputation. The substance of your question seems to suggest they would. I could not see where a large organisation that audits AS 9000 and AS 9001 across many manufacturers and all the other industries you could imagine, including the coal industry, would put that at risk for a very small slither of work in this area. It defies imagination. But that seems to be what you are suggesting. But forgive me for interceding as the department was going to provide a response.

Mr Morris: I think that is our answer!

Senator RHIANNON: What prosecutions, disciplinary proceedings or action of any substance have been undertaken by the federal department or its delegate, AQIS, in relation to breaches of live-export animal welfare standards prescribed by the department secretary?

Mr Morris: We would have to take that on notice, because it would be quite a list in terms of actions that are taken in the event of problems with compliance for exports of animals. I would note, though, that this is the first time we have had a framework that applies in another country, in terms of the Indonesian framework. The actions to date have been around the existing policy framework, which involves the preparation and export up to the point of arrival in the importing country.

Back to All News