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Live Export: Following the Paper Trail

image from whistleblower footage
image from whistleblower footage

By Wendy Laursen 2019-03-26 20:18:21

When thousands of sheep died of heat stress on the Awassi Express, there was no public outcry, no public apology and no shocked politicians.

These responses came a long time after the event when 60 Minutes aired whistleblower footage showing the livestock dying, sometimes bogged in feces. More footage, “Boiled Alive,” deemed so confronting that commercial television would not show it, was aired by Fairfax Media shortly after.

Up until then, the incident had not gained notoriety - higher mortality voyages happen; they have done since the Australian live export industry began decades ago.

The investigation into the Awassi Express high mortality voyage to the Middle East for Emanuel Exports wasn't hidden; it remains publicly available on the Department of Agriculture's website.

Yet, now, for the third time this year, the Department has been accused of covering up what happens on live export ships and how it deals with it.

The first alleged cover-up was claimed by the RSPCA because, after six months of battling to obtain onboard observer reports via Freedom of Information requests, the reports provided were heavily redacted. Observers were placed on board livestock carriers departing Australia in the aftermath of the Awassi Express outcry.

The second alleged cover-up was claimed by Australian Greens Senator and Spokesperson for Animal Welfare, Dr. Mehreen Faruqi, after she revealed documents she said showed that the Department had a role in editing the post-outcry review of its own performance as a regulator of the live export industry - the “Moss Review.”

Now, a third alleged cover-up is claimed by veterinary association Vets Against Live Export. The organization says that the very limited number of Department-published summaries of the independent observer reports don't include details deemed unfavorable to the industry and, only the first one (report 10) uses the words “heat stress” in relation to the livestock despite independent observer comments that indicate that heat stress occurred and even led to livestock fatalities. “The summaries have been whitewashed,” says spokeswoman Dr. Sue Foster, “and the whitewashing of heat stress seems to have occurred after the first round of information was released publicly.

“The Department of Agriculture has covered up vital information and in doing so has deceived the government which continues to allow voyages to the Middle East in May,” says Foster. The industry has already decided to self-regulate and, temporarily at least, stop sheep exports from Australia's winter to the Middle East summer (June - August).

Foster notes that the observers used different panting scores to assess heat stress and that some observers made comments that would indicate that they did not have adequate knowledge about sheep on which to base their conclusions.

Vets Against Live Export is attempting to clarify the paper trail by publishing its reviews of the discrepancies along with the independent observer reports and the government summaries.

Foster is concerned that of 153 voyages for 2018, the Department has only chosen to publicly list independent observer summaries from 23 voyages for the year. Of those 23 voyages, summaries are only available for 15. One of the missing summaries is from a voyage in May on the Al Shuwaikh, for which the independent observer has already submitted a report.

Foster notes that the official mortality rate for live exported sheep in 2018 was 0.61 percent. Out of the eight voyages involving sheep that have reports available, only one exceeded the average (the May voyage that is yet to have a Department summary released for the Al Shuwaikh that had a mortality rate of 0.88 percent). The next highest mortality in the available reports is 0.53 percent.

“As all independent observer voyages apart from one are below the average mortality rate for sheep in 2018, clearly the public is not being given reports for a substantial number of voyages with higher mortalities. Unless these voyages all occurred prior to the independent observer program, there appears to have been selection bias in the reports released to the public,” alleges Foster.

Citing examples of other information that didn't appear in Department summary reports, Foster notes that ewes sourced for export as slaughter and feeder animals must be certified not to be pregnant, yet lambings occurred on a number of voyages. “These lambings were not necessarily noted in the summary at all despite the fact that a breach of the Australian Standards for the Export of Livestock had occurred,” she said. “In addition, one official Department summary report stated the lambs left the vessel with their mothers in strong condition. The original observer report however documents that three of the six lambs died on board.”

The Moss review found that the department was “lacking to the required extent” the characteristics of a good regulator; that it employed protocols that “can lead to poor investigative outcomes” and that it was “unable to report the outcomes of investigations in a timely manner.”The review also highlighted instances where former staff in the animal welfare branch of the Department allegedly had their reports “revised or redrafted to dilute or expunge findings which adversely reflected on the regulatory framework.”

“In that light, it is evident that nothing has changed,” says Foster.

This is not the first time that Vets Against Live Export has attempted to set the record straight. It was Vets Against Live Export that noticed that the Department had lowered a 2016 Emanuel Exports' high mortality voyage figure from 4.36 percent in the initial parliamentary report to 2.51 percent and complained to the Chief Veterinary Officer. The Moss Review cited this example and commented that: “It is noted that the department [subsequently] agreed that the true mortality figure for this voyage was in excess of four percent, the figure in the parliamentary report given as 2.51 percent.”

Vets Against Live Export claims to provide much-needed transparency on the live export trade, but the industry itself is now highlighting the need for more transparency - even releasing it's own onboard footage.

Since the public outcry over the Awassi Express voyage, exporter Emanuel Exports had its license to export Australian livestock revoked by the Department. Since losing its license, the company has hired a veterinarian as compliance officer, has indicated it's continued commitment to the industry and has launched The Sheep Collective to provide transparent information about the trade.

Whether or not the company applies for and regains its export license remains to be seen.

The reports discussed in this article are available here.