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Estimates: Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry (Live Exports)

Video & Multimedia
Lee Rhiannon 21 May 2012

Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport Legislation Committee

Estimates hearings, 21 May 2012

Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry

  • Senator Joe Ludwig, Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry; Minister Assisting on Queensland Floods Recovery
  • Dr Conall O’Connell, Secretary
  • Mr Phillip Glyde, Deputy Secretary
  • Mr Dean Merrilees, Assistant Secretary, Animal Export Operations Branch
  • Ms Lee Cale, Assistant Secretary, Animal Export Reform Branch

Full transcript available here

Transcript of video is at the end of the following transcript.

Senator RHIANNON: Minister, I would like to go back to some of the developments last week with regard to live exports and the announcement that was made. My recollection is that you gave this as an example that the regulations that have been put in place were working. But considering that two abattoirs were found to have allowed the cruel practices to be perpetrated against animals that may have come from Australia, on what basis do you say that the regulations are working?

Senator Ludwig: Clearly they do work, because we have a compliance system in place. Where a mistake, issue or problem arises there is—as we now have released—an investigation, an examination of that individual supply chain, and appropriate action taken against the individual supply chain itself; whereas prior to the introduction of ESCAS there was no way of knowing which animals were going to which feedlot on which boat and into which abattoir from which exporter, and no way of knowing precisely what the animal welfare outcomes of any of those were. So self-regulation clearly failed. In this instance we were able to identify that, of the four that were reported, two were not part of the ESCAS system and therefore allegations about their operations could not be sustained, and two could be sustained. The regulator could then look at individual exporters all the way down to the two in question, identify that they did form part of ESCAS and take the appropriate regulatory action against them. And I think the way the system now operates it also provides a wake-up call to industry that the regulator is on the beat. The regulator is there to ensure that ESCAS works. Rather than head down the track of simply suspending the trade on the basis that you cannot identify which supply chain, you can now hold the exporter to account. I can take you through longer than that but I suspect you only wanted the short answer.

Senator RHIANNON: Considering that we are aware of these cruel practices because of the footage taken by Animals Australia, doesn’t that again highlight the problems with the regime that you have put in place—that what we are now aware of and what you are talking about is because of the courageous actions of those people, not because of the regime you put in place?

Senator Ludwig: The system works. It works because there is a compliance system in place. There is a regulator who investigates all noncompliance, whether it be through complaint, auditing or an own-motion examination. All of these mean that, wherever the information comes from, it is individually investigated. And in this instance it demonstrated that two exporters failed to meet the appropriate requirements and were held to account. Again, the way the investigation proceeds also provides feedback to the regulator to work through with all of the other exporters to ensure that issues identified through that investigation can be applied more broadly to all of the exporters as well in terms of learning from those particular investigations—because the majority, or nearly all, of the producers do take the welfare of their livestock very seriously. But, more importantly, for the first time, producers now have visibility along that supply chain individually through the exporter, through the ship, through to the feedlot, through to the slaughter yard and to the ultimate auditing process. So producers can also take this opportunity to both minimise and understand their risks associated with this trade.

Senator RHIANNON: Minister, you said that wherever the information comes from it will be investigated. Again, the only examples we have seen so far are because, at considerable personal risk, people from animal welfare organisations have gone in and collected that information. Could you outline how the department is collecting information, seeking information, about animal cruelty practices?

Senator Ludwig: I will ask Mr Glyde to answer on how the regulator deals with that.

Mr Glyde: Senator, I would like to correct what you said there. We actually have information from other sources, as the minister mentioned earlier, in relation to the performance of all of the supply chains. There are three types of information we look at. One is the one that we have been discussing, which is third-party information. The second is the independent audit reports. The first five consignments through a supply chain have to be independently audited and then there is auditing that follows on after that. The final part is exporters themselves reporting to us any noncompliances they observe. They are under an obligation, if they discover a noncompliance, to report that to us within five days. To date we have had five instances of self-reported noncompliance. We have investigated three of those and found that they were minor breaches, and we are currently investigating another two. We have not yet come to a conclusion about the extent or the nature of those breaches but we are investigating those as well. So from the regulator’s perspective we have three sources of information that enable us to monitor how the system is performing.

Senator RHIANNON: So you have those three sources of information. Are there any other third parties that you take information from, or can it be anybody at all?

Mr Glyde: It can really be anybody at all. Obviously we discuss and talk with our Indonesian colleagues in this particular instance but, in essence, if you are asking whether it is possible for other third parties to provide information—yes.

Senator RHIANNON: Have there been any examples of that?

Mr Glyde: Not that I am aware of to date. The only thing we have received so far has been the footage that you have referred to that was supplied to us by Animals Australia.

Senator RHIANNON: Thank you. Considering that this has been something that I think we are all aware of that has distressed large numbers of Australians, what efforts has the department made to inform people that third parties can in fact supply information that would be considered in this way?

Mr Glyde: On the departmental website we have our compliance and enforcement information, the processes we follow, the procedures we follow and our expectations. So that is there. As far as I am aware we have not undertaken any communication campaign in relation to that. This system has been in place for less than 12 months, and I think it is important to understand that it is a new system. It has not been tried anywhere else in the world by any other country that exports live animals. The system is bedding down and we would expect mistakes to be made from time to time. I think it is reflective of the fact that this is a new system. But I guess we think that the successful investigation, the taking of action and the demonstration that we can take compliance action against individual exporters demonstrates that the system is working. In relation to your specific question—unless others might be able to confirm otherwise—we have not undertaken any advertising or media campaign stating that third parties can contribute. But of course they can, and I think that is reflected on our website.

Senator RHIANNON: Thank you. I would like to explore some more information about the ESCAS system. Under the new ESCAS system, how many notifications of changes in circumstances has DAFF received?

Mr Glyde: All I can say is a lot.

Dr O’Connell: Can you clarify what you mean by a change in circumstances, Senator, just so we know what we are referring to?

Senator RHIANNON: Maybe I am just talking specifically about the notifications. I am trying to ascertain the nature of the notifications.

Dr O’Connell: How many notifications about incidents?

Senator RHIANNON: Yes—how many and then some information about those notifications, please.

Mr Glyde: I will start and see if anyone else can help. As I said earlier, in terms of notifications from our audit reports I think to date we have received a vast number of initial audit reports and are beginning to receive our performance audit reports, which I can go into in more detail if you like. I do not think any incidences have been uncovered in relation to those audit reports as yet in terms of the information we have published. But we have also, as I said earlier, received from the exporters themselves five notifications of noncompliances.

Senator RHIANNON: I understand that they are to be reported in five working days. That is correct, isn’t it?Mr Glyde: That is my understanding.

Senator RHIANNON: Has that happened in all those cases?

Mr Glyde: I might ask some of my colleagues whether those reports have come in in that time frame.

Mr Merrilees: At least one report of an incident that was self-reported by an exporter did not occur within the five days required. That matter is currently under investigation.

Senator RHIANNON: When you say it is under investigation do you mean that the issue is under investigation, or why they did not report within five days?

Mr Merrilees: The issue itself is under investigation.

Senator RHIANNON: Not the fact that they did not report within five days?

Mr Merrilees: What will likely happen when we conclude that investigation is that we will record, because of the late notification, a minor noncompliance due to a failure to meet the reporting timeline. But that would be a small part of the broader investigation.

Senator RHIANNON: How many days were they overdue, please?

Mr Merrilees: I would have to take that on notice, Senator.

Senator RHIANNON: Thank you. I will go back to the two examples that have been in the news recently. I understand that the independent auditing system did fail to detect and publicly report these breaches of standards, so I want to clarify—Minister, you have elaborated on this to some extent—that my understanding is correct that what was highlighted in that Animals Australia video was not picked up by the independent auditing system. Is that correct?

Senator Ludwig: I will get the department to run through what the sequence of events was.

Ms Cale: That is right, Senator. The breaches that were picked up in the footage—the audit reports indicate that the independent audits had not yet been conducted on those particular facilities.

Senator RHIANNON: Was there any reason for that? Was it just that it had not come to their turn yet? Could you just elaborate on how that is all working, please?

Dr O’Connell: Just to be very clear, it was not that the independent audit failed to pick that up; the independent audit had not happened at that stage. So it was not that it failed to pick it up; it simply had not happened at that stage. Audits obviously happen at a point in time. Ms Cale can perhaps talk about the point in time.

Ms Cale: That is right. There is a requirement for the exporter to provide an independent audit report to the department 190 days after the date of export. In this case the exporters had not yet had the audits conducted of those two facilities but they were within their 190 days at that stage.

Senator RHIANNON: When Animals Australia came forward with their investigation and that solid evidence, was any assessment then made of the Exporter Supply Chain Assurance System and how that is working—if it needed to change with regard to these independent audits, as there were obviously serious breaches that had not been picked up? Was any assessment made that there is something wrong here?

Mr Merrilees: As part of the investigation, as well as the material that was provided by Animals Australia we looked at the material that we had on file from the exporter’s original application, which included the initial audit of that system. We looked at the material that the exporter provided and we also looked at material that we received from Meat and Livestock Australia and the Indonesian government. We considered all of the material we had available to us, we reached the conclusions in that investigation that two exporters had breached their ESCAS requirements, and we recommended the appropriate regulatory actions.

Mr Glyde: In addition to the actions against the two particular exporters, there were also four observations made in the investigation report that go to broader elements within the system. I think that was the direction of your question—whether any implications have flowed out from the investigation report. I will ask Mr Merrilees to run through what they were.

Mr Merrilees: Three broad observations were made by the investigation. One focused on the operation of the mark 4 restraint box, particularly where that restraint box was operated without stunning. Some of the footage showed that the particular restraint box did not include a head or neck restraint. The report has recommended in relation to that issue that Australia’s Chief Veterinary Officer further examine whether that mark 4 box operated without an appropriate head and neck restraint meets the OIE guidelines on animal welfare. The chief vet put out a media release on Friday confirming that he will be reviewing the operation of that box. The other two observations were around issues in relation to the information that we receive as part of the application and also perhaps the risks associated where you have exporters using a facility that has both approved slaughter lines and non-approved slaughter lines—slaughter lines that we have assessed as meeting the ESCAS requirements and those that we have not assessed as meeting or otherwise the ESCAS requirements. What the report recommends there is that we further examine those issues with a view to improving the information that exporters provide at the time of application for their ESCAS approvals, including considering the exporter providing appropriate measures and explanations as to how they would control in that particular circumstance to ensure that there was not any leakage from an approved supply chain of exported cattle into a non-approved supply chain. Those issues the department will be taking through in consultation with industry under the industry government implementation group, which has a role in monitoring the implementation of the new regulatory framework.

Senator RHIANNON: Can you just expand on the non-approved supply chain? How much of the trade does this take up, and how does that interact with the approved supply chain? It sounds like you are worried about possible leakage.

Mr Merrilees: Australian cattle exported can only be exported to and slaughtered in an Exporter Supply Chain Assurance System approved abattoir which we have approved. What the investigation identified is that some of the abattoir facilities that have had certain slaughter lines approved also undertake slaughter for non-Australian cattle, predominantly local cattle. So they are using a different slaughter line and in some cases potentially a different slaughter process that we have not assessed. Obviously what we will be looking for from exporters is assurance that they have appropriate measures in place to ensure that the Australian cattle are processed through the approved slaughter line.

Senator RHIANNON: Minister, considering the severity of the cruelty that we saw in this latest lot of footage that we are discussing at the moment—and it happened within a year of the extraordinary exposé from Four Corners—why did the government not suspend the export of livestock to the region where the investigations were ongoing?

Senator Ludwig: I think it is clear if you go back and look at the Farmer review and the way the ESCAS works, there are two things. In this instance the regulator, in looking at and through the investigation—the short answer is that the exporter lost control of that supply chain. The regulator then looked at those circumstances, did the investigation and came up with outcomes, because you can individually look at each supply chain. You do not have to suspend cattle going into that area, because you can look at each individual supply chain as distinct from an area. Therefore the individual exporter along that supply chain can be investigated. That is why we have put in place ESCAS—so that individual exporters can have traceability, control and independent auditing of that supply chain, to avoid the issue of having to suspend or ban particular abattoirs or suspend the trade into regions or areas. That is why ESCAS looks at the individual supply chain: so you do not need to suspend the trade into an area for what purpose—it would penalise unfairly those supply chains that were meeting our requirements.

Senator RHIANNON: Thank you for explaining that. I want to go back into some of the details to understand how the system is working. If I have the right point, it is point 21 in the control order. Has that created any new conditions for an ESCAS approval and, if so, what are the details of those? I think it is in item 13—you inserted a new subsection.

Senator Ludwig: Sorry, which document are you referring to—just so that we are all on the same page?

Senator RHIANNON: It is about the new ESCAS system—the animals order.

Senator Ludwig: But can you identify the document?

Senator RHIANNON: It is subsection 2.44(5) of the animals order. It says:

Without limiting the discretion of the Secretary, this amendment sets out specific matters that the Secretary may create conditions with respect to when making a decision to approve or not approve an ESCAS. These conditions are not restricted to ones regulating the relevant OIE recommendations, but can relate to any other matter more generally that the Secretary considers appropriate.

I am trying to understand that aspect. Specifically, has that created any new conditions for an ESCAS approval?

Dr O’Connell: Are you referring to new conditions after the investigation report into these incidents?

Senator RHIANNON: I think so but that is what I am just trying to clarify from the animals order. I understand that it is point 21 in the control order.

Dr O’Connell: If it relates to the two supply chains and exporters that were the subject of the investigation and found to have breached their conditions, we can talk, I think, about the additional conditions that have been placed on their supply chains.

Mr Merrilees: The investigation recommended—and in fact the secretary, as the decision maker under the animals order, has taken the following actions against the two exporters that were found to have breached the ESCAS system. Firstly, the abattoir where those breaches occurred has been removed from each of the exporters’ approved supply chains. So until they satisfy us that they have conducted appropriate corrective and remedial action they will not be able to let those two particular facilities receive and slaughter cattle exported from Australia. In addition we have applied to all of their consignments that have been exported to date and are still being processed and to future consignments a requirement that, where they intend to use a facility that has a mark 4 restraint box used without stunning, they have to have an animal welfare officer present when cattle exported from Australia are slaughtered. In addition, those facilities will be subject to an increased audit frequency. Initially that will involve three audits monthly and, subject to satisfactory performance, a further two audits bimonthly—so in total five audits over a seven-month period to satisfy ourselves. That is for all those abattoirs that have a mark 4 box used without stunning in their particular supply chains.

Senator RHIANNON: Is that referring to what came in on 1 March?

Mr Merrilees: No.

Senator RHIANNON: When did that come in?

Mr Merrilees: Those particular actions we have taken in relation to the investigation report were determined by the secretary as the decision maker last week, so they came into effect last week.

Senator RHIANNON: Last week?

Mr Merrilees: That is right. I think the issue of 1 March you may be referring to is the date on which tranche 1 countries came under the operation of ESCAS.

Senator RHIANNON: So what you have just described came in as a response to the latest revelation?

Dr O’Connell: That was in response to the investigation of the apparent breaches, and that is the Lateline footage that Animals Australia—

Senator RHIANNON: The first lot of footage?

Dr O’Connell: No, the Lateline footage, which was the Animals Australia footage.

Senator RHIANNON: The latest?

Mr Glyde: The most recent footage.

Dr O’Connell: There was the investigation. The response to the investigation was to provide those new conditions on those exporters who were found to be in breach. Separately—and probably we do not have a clear understanding of what you are after—on 1 March the ESCAS regulations effectively came into play for a set of countries that are in what we call tranche 1. We can specify those countries but they are a large chunk of the export market.

Ms Cale: The tranche 1 countries are Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar and Turkey. With those four tranche 1 countries and Indonesia and Egypt, which has existing post-arrival conditions, the new orders cover 75 per cent of the live trade.

Dr O’Connell: Then there is another tranche—tranche 2—that will come into play in September, and then by the end of the year all live animal exports for slaughter will be covered by the regulations. When tranche 2 is in, around 99 per cent will be covered. Then the rest will be afterwards.

Senator RHIANNON: Thank you.

[Other senators continued the questioning]

CHAIR: No worries. By agreement with my colleagues, we are going to have a couple of quick questions from Senator Rhiannon. I do not want to get into a blue. I should not use that word, 'blue'; I will retract that. The last time I did that, people told fibs about me! I do not want to get into an argument. Senator Rhiannon, just a couple of quick ones and then we will move on.

Senator RHIANNON: Thank you. I understand that in evidence just before lunch you said that you did not find any proof that sheep on board a ship berthed at Fremantle port in early April had suffered broken limbs or were pregnant. Is that an accurate summary?

Mr Glyde: Yes.

Senator RHIANNON: These reports that I have commented on were from Forest Rescue Australia. Forest Rescue Australia is one of a number of animal rights groups that are exposing cruelty associated with live exports. Considering that there were tens of thousands of sheep on that ship, are you seriously asserting that every sheep was viewed by your officers and none was found to have broken bones or was pregnant?

Ms Cale: When the PVO of DAFF, the principal veterinary officer, and a veterinary officer inspected the animals post the media release, they found no evidence of animals that were pregnant or animals with broken legs.

Senator RHIANNON: They checked the tens of thousands of sheep that were on the ship? Did they check all of them or did they just do spot checks?

Ms Cale: No. Clearly they went through the vessel and checked the animals, but it is impossible to say that they were able to identify every single animal as they went through.

Senator RHIANNON: Thank you; you are saying that they did not check every animal. So they could not be 100 per cent confident that no sheep had a broken bone or that no sheep was pregnant.

Dr O'Connell: They undertook a comprehensive examination sufficient to meet our certification requirements and found no evidence.

Senator RHIANNON: But I understand that did not involve looking at all the animals; so you cannot be 100 per cent confident that no sheep had a broken bone or that no sheep was pregnant.

Dr O'Connell: I think that they looked at all decks, as I understand it.

Senator RHIANNON: But still, 'all decks' is not 'all sheep'.

Dr O'Connell: I am not quite sure what the point is.

Senator Ludwig: There is no evidence. The regulator has gone to the document and that is their evidence to the committee. Bear in mind that if anybody does have any evidence of animal cruelty or mistreatment of animals, then what I say always in these instances is that they should bring it to the attention of the regulator. They are the appropriate people to deal with it. So if you are aware of any abuse or cruelty to animals, I would expect you to then contact the regulator, write to the regulator and advise them of the circumstances. Have you done that?

Senator RHIANNON: Thank you. What we can take from this is that not every animal was checked.

CHAIR: There was intense questioning. There was no shortage of answers. Senator Rhiannon, I urge you to read the Hansard when it comes out in a couple of weeks. In that case, we will thank Biosecurity Animals. I feel as though I am calling you names! I am sorry about that. Perhaps I should say 'the animal division'.

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