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Estimates: Department of Agriculture (Live Exports)

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Lee Rhiannon 1 Nov 2012

Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport Legislation Committee

Estimates hearings, 1 November 2012

  • Dr Conall O'Connell, Secretary, Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry
  • Mr Phillip Glyde, Deputy Secretary, Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry
  • Senator Bill Heffernan, Liberal Senator for New South Wales

Senator RHIANNON: I would like to ask some questions about breaking news about live exports to Qatar and Pakistan, but I will just start with the recent situation in Bahrain. Considering what happened with the sheep shipment to Bahrain and then the killing of about 7,000 of these sheep in Pakistan under unacceptable conditions that broke the ESCAS standards, are you confident that producers are able to know what happens at all stages of the supply chain?

Mr Glyde: We approved a supply chain to Pakistan and, as you are aware, the operator of the supply chain was not able to maintain control of those animals, through the intervention of local authorities and armed guards. At the time of approval of the supply chain we were confident that it met the ESCAS standards.

Senator RHIANNON: Considering Wellard—and you have just confirmed it—said that it lost control of the supply chain when the ship arrived in Pakistan, is it accurate to say the producers now have visibility along the supply chain?

Mr Glyde: What was approved was the supply chain that enabled the three elements that we look for in ESCAS, which are control, traceability and treatment to international animal welfare standards. At the time of approval, that supply chain had all those elements. The intervention of third parties has meant that the exporter did lose control. We are currently conducting an investigation into the circumstances of that loss of control and what led to it. We will be reporting on that in due course.

Senator RHIANNON: Considering you say 'lost control', that means to say that, with the supply chain, you can identify breaches and mistakes and deal with those through the regulator, and that, at some point, that was not able to be achieved because Wellard lost control?

Mr Glyde: That is correct. So what we had is a very regrettable situation in which 21,000 sheep ended up being culled. That certainly was not the intent of the exporter or indeed of the regulator.

Senator RHIANNON: Minister Ludwig said:

The system of regulation works, because what we can do with the supply chain we can identify breaches, we can identify mistakes and deal with that through the regulator.

But that did not actually happen, did it?

Mr Glyde: No. What we are trying to do, consignment by consignment, supply chain by supply chain, is to approve them to have the elements of control, traceability and treatment to international animal welfare standards. In this case, that did not occur. So we now go back and we look at it, examine it and investigate it fully; we try to understand the reasons for any breaches in that system, and then we make judgements and changes accordingly. The bigger picture here is that there has been the movement of quite a large number of animals—probably over 1.3 million animals since 1 January this year—through ESCAS-compliant supply chains. Here is an example where it has not worked—where there have been adverse outcomes that we regret. We are now going to try and do our best to learn from that to improve the overall regulatory system.

Senator RHIANNON: Going back to your comment that you are investigating it at the moment, when will the report be finalised and when will it be made public?

Mr Glyde: I cannot say when it will be finalised. We are in the process of gathering information and asking the exporter to provide all relevant information to us. I wrote to the exporter on Monday of this week to start that process. We met with the exporter yesterday. We will be seeking information from other parties as well. These matters are handled by our compliance and enforcement unit. They do it to their timeline.

Senator RHIANNON: This year or next year?

Mr Glyde: I cannot say.

Senator RHIANNON: Is there anybody from them here who could give us an idea?

Dr O'Connell: They would not be able to give you a time line at the moment. This is at a preliminary stage. We have only just, as Mr Glyde said, worked through the preliminaries with the exporter. There will be a lot of information to gather, and obviously it will be a relatively complex investigation.

Senator RHIANNON: Will it be made public?

Mr Glyde: Yes. One thing I can say is that the report will be made public, as indeed is done with all of our investigations.

Senator RHIANNON: Do you think the events in Bahrain and Pakistan could have been prevented?

Mr Glyde: That is really a question that we will be in a better position to answer when we have completed our investigation in relation to the incidents in Pakistan and our review of the circumstances in Bahrain.

Senator RHIANNON: Going back to Bahrain and how that all played out, when did DAFF become aware that there was a problem with unloading in Bahrain? What action did you take when you became aware? What did you negotiate at that point? And, did DAFF remind Bahrain of its obligations under the MOU, which I understand sets out that animals are to be unloaded within 36 hours of docking?

Mr Glyde: We were advised on the evening of 22 August that a consignment was not given permission to unload in Bahrain, due to some concerns about the health of the sheep.

Senator RHIANNON: Who informed you?

Mr Glyde: The exporter. That vessel had already discharged sheep in Qatar and Oman, so that was a surprise to us. The concern that had been raised by the Bahraini government was in relation to a small number of animals with a common virus called scabby mouth. It is not a disease of concern as far as concerns the memorandum of understanding we have between Australia and Bahrain. We immediately started representations through our post in Bahrain to remind Bahrain of their obligation under the MOU, where that does indeed relate to unloading healthy animals. There continued to be a series of interactions between government officials and the Bahraini officials to try to ascertain what the circumstances were. Tests were taken et cetera.

Senator HEFFERNAN: Would you clarify which government officials and Bahraini officials?

Mr Glyde: These were our representatives in Bahrain.

Senator HEFFERNAN: I think I heard you say earlier that the concerns about unloading the sheep were raised by the exporter?

Mr Glyde: No, we were informed by the exporter that they had trouble in unloading.

Senator HEFFERNAN: Who raised the concern of the disease in the sheep?

Mr Glyde: The Bahraini government officials.

Senator HEFFERNAN: In the report you are going to do are you going to look at the difficulty and the degree of difficulty of doing business in those areas with a different sort of a culture in terms of facilitation money? Being familiar with the way it works, in a lot of these places you can get a signature on anything if you pay them enough money.

Dr O'Connell: The issue for us in this case was that the exporter let us know that they were having trouble unloading the vessel, on the grounds that there appeared to be veterinary health grounds. At no stage did the veterinary authorities actually reject the consignment on animal health grounds. In fact it was the port authority that asked the vessel to move off. The reason for that was not known to us. We deal with the facts as we know them, and the facts as we know them are that the exporter had difficulty unloading. The ostensible reason was the health of the animals. That said, the veterinary authorities in Bahrain did not reject the animals.

Senator HEFFERNAN: Who gave the—

Senator RHIANNON: How many days after 22 August did the shipment leave?

Dr O'Connell: That it left Bahrain altogether?

Senator RHIANNON: When did it leave Bahrain?

Dr O'Connell: That it left Bahrain altogether.

Mr Glyde: On 30 August.

Senator RHIANNON: When you said that Wellards were informed, how did the Wellards find out, because there are some reports that they found out from a media report and they were not notified officially? Were Wellards notified officially and, if so, what does 'official' mean?

Dr O'Connell: The exact circumstances are one of the things we will be investigating, but, as I said, there was no rejection of the consignment from the veterinary authorities. Rather, there was simply not, at that stage, the agreement to unload, so there was still activity going on. The proximate issue was that then the port authority asked the ship to move off berth. The ship moved off berth—outside of the waters—and in due course the exporter made the decision to go to an alternative port.

Senator RHIANNON: Why were the RSPCA and Animals Australia not officially notified of problems with the two shipments heading to Bahrain and Kuwait, considering that the RSPCA is represented on the review of the standards for the export of livestock?

Dr O'Connell: It is not our role as a regulator to inform third parties of the progress of these issues.

Senator RHIANNON: Is that your interpretation of what the rules are?

Dr O'Connell: It is not the rules. It is not a requirement for us to inform third parties of the state of any particular consignment. We have a lot of consignments. We do not give running commentaries, if you like.

Senator RHIANNON: Considering the controversy around this, wouldn't it have been advisable to alert the Australian Standards for the Export of Livestock members?

Dr O'Connell: There is no particular role for anybody involved in that process on any particular consignment.

Senator RHIANNON: Did the department know of any disease problems in the feedlots of Western Australia prior to the sheep being exported to Bahrain?

Mr Glyde: As Dr Schipp has outlined already, the animals were passed as healthy and fit to load. So we were not aware of any problems. Subsequent testing of those animals indicates they did not have any health problems.

Dr O'Connell: They were independently tested by a laboratory in the UK and those tests came clear of all modifiable diseases.

Senator RHIANNON: What steps took place between the two shipments being rejected by Bahrain and the exporters being able to send the sheep to Pakistan by getting Pakistan approved under ESCAS? Also, could you give us a timeline here, because we are now up to 30 August. So you have now decided the shipment leaves Bahrain. At what point do you start negotiating with Pakistan? How do you get them into ESCAS? When did they arrive? So, the timeline and how it worked.

Mr Glyde: First of all, the decision to go to Pakistan is not a decision taken by the government. That decision was taken by the exporter. In light of the difficulties the exporter was having in being unable to unload the sheep, we received from the exporter, on 24 August, some information that they might be considering using Pakistan. In order to—

Senator RHIANNON: What date was that?

Mr Glyde: That was 24 August. In order for that shipment to go to Pakistan, legally there were two broad requirements. The first was animal health certification to make sure that those sheep were able to be landed in Pakistan—that they met Pakistan's health requirements. The second thing was to get an approval under ESCAS that there was an ESCAS-complaint supply chain in Pakistan.

Senator RHIANNON: How did you get ESCAS in place so quickly considering, from what I understood with other countries, that it is actually a considerable process.

Mr Glyde: I think it is important to understand what we are looking at for ESCAS. It is not necessarily a matter of time. It is whether or not a supply chain meets the standards required, to give assurance to the regulator that the animals will be under control, traceable and treated to international animal welfare standards. So, we have a checklist we go through to make sure that the supply chain is compliant with ESCAS. Over the period between 24 August and when ESCAS approval was granted, on 1 September, the exporter was able to provide the necessary information to enable us to approve the shipment under ESCAS.

Senator RHIANNON: So, even though Pakistan has no record since 1996 of importing sheep from Australia—therefore there has not been a relationship and I am therefore assuming that DAFF does not have knowledge about how that industry is working—you were able to sign off on what Wellard supplied to you? On what basis are you confident that Wellards are accurate in terms of what they set out would happen to the animals when they arrived?

Mr Glyde: You are quite correct in pointing out that this is the first shipment into Pakistan, so it is a new market and therefore ESCAS is required. Dr Schipp has just reminded me that this is for slaughter sheep. The responsibility is on the exporter under the ESCAS system to be able to demonstrate to the regulator that they have a supply chain that meets the requirements of ESCAS. They were able to do that. We were aware prior to this that Wellard had been planning to open up the market into Pakistan for slaughter sheep.

Senator RHIANNON: But going back to my question, since 1996 there has not been a trade in sheep with Pakistan. So you have just trusted Wellards when they have said that ESCAS will work?

Mr Glyde: No—

Senator RHIANNON: So that is what you signed off on?

Mr Glyde: No. We have signed off on a checklist, which is on our website, about all of the requirements that an ESCAS compliant supply chain has to meet. Wellard's responsibility, or any exporter's responsibility, is to demonstrate that those elements are met. When those elements are met the regulator makes that decision.

Dr O'Connell: It is probably worth saying that in this case additional measures were included in the submission, including the presence of an independent monitoring officer with proper animal welfare expertise—independent is no conflict of interest; the presence of MLA, Meat and Livestock Australia, personnel to monitor standards and deliver assistance; and the presence of additional technical staff to look at livestock logistics, transport, handling, training et cetera. So there was a range of additional measures over and above the norm, which was really I think a recognition that this was a new supply chain.

Senator RHIANNON: So you were confident that there were trained staff and proper facilities for the sheep's slaughter?

CHAIR: I am going to have to ask you to wind up, Senator Rhiannon.

Dr O'Connell: The problem that occurred was not within the supply chain that was approved, but it was the fact that there was a third party who entered and took control.

Senator RHIANNON: Chair, we actually did not start the questions until 25-to and we had allocated half an hour.

CHAIR: Senator Rhiannon, I know what time we started. That is why I have gone over. I do not need to be lectured about—

Senator RHIANNON: It was not a lecture, it was just a suggestion—

CHAIR: We are about three minutes over and I have asked you to make that your last question and put the rest on notice once this one is answered.

Mr Glyde: Could I make a clarification of that. In terms of the relationships with Pakistan, over the period from 2007 to date there have been 26 consignments of breeder cattle, goats, sheep et cetera from a variety of different exporters. I am advised that Wellards started their preparation for being ESCAS compliant in June of this year. Indeed, the relationship that Wellards have with the importer dates back to 1992. They have been working with that importer since 1996 in terms of getting a facility that would be compliant with international standards, and they have been working, obviously, since June in getting this up to speed, which is what Wellards had informed us prior to this incident occurring.

Senator RHIANNON: My last question.

CHAIR: I will get you to put the rest on notice.

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