AUSTRALIA is the only country in the world that has made animal welfare a condition of livestock trade.
Five years ago today, the ABC’s Four Corners aired its now notorious story ‘A Bloody Business’ that showed horrific footage of mistreatment of Australian-origin cattle in some Indonesian abattoirs.
The story whipped up a frenzy.
Producers stood alongside Australians of all walks of life in their shock and condemnation of the poor practices.
There was very little common knowledge of the live cattle trade industry throughout the Australian community at the time. It’s value was sorely underrated.
So when the inevitable demands for an end to the live trade of cattle with Indonesia flooded in, the government of the time obliged.
The suspension of export to Indonesia of feeder and slaughter livestock was put in place on June 8, 2011.
What happened next was nothing short of remarkable.
In a matter of weeks, a regulatory framework known as ESCAS - the Exporter Supply Chain Assurance System - was developed.
It is based on four key pillars: animal welfare complying with high, World Organisation for Animal Health standards; exporters having control of the complete supply chain; exporters being able to trace or account for all livestock and independent auditing.
The first consignment was exported under ESCAS on 10 August 2011 and ESCAS was implemented in all markets by January 1, 2013.
Looking back, what was achieved was incredible, says Australian Livestock Exporters' Association chief executive officer Alison Penfold.
“It’s one thing for a government to say you have to be responsible and another for an industry to accept that and get on and do it in a fashion that five years later their trade is in a stronger position,” she said.
“That frustrates those opposed to the trade.
“They threw everything but the kitchen sink at this trade to bring it down and today it’s even stronger.
“I’d say to those people - it’s stronger because of what you did. You’ve contributed to the improvements.
“We acknowledge that despite the hurt and pain the suspension caused it’s created a stronger, more resilient and more sustainable live trade industry.”
Social licence is real
THE suspension of live cattle exports to Indonesia five years ago is widely considered in beef circles to have been impulsive.
It had enormous ramifications on Australia’s beef industry - millions of dollar losses to businesses, cattle properties in receivership, thousands who depend on the export trade out of work - most of which are still reverberating today.
The lessons learned have been just as dramatic, although perhaps it has taken the full five years to be able to put them in perspective.
For leading agriculture commentator Mick Keogh, executive director of the Australian Farm Institute, it was evident from day one the suspension threw in the faces of the beef industry a major risk confronting Australian agriculture that it was nowhere near prepared to deal with.
In an opinion piece published the day after the ban was announced, he wrote: “Leaving aside the horror Australian beef producers clearly felt in response to the footage, the issue has highlighted the inability of a diverse and fragmented industry to respond in a cohesive and positive manner to such a concerted challenge from the general public, who are, after all, consumers.”
Today, in an era where consumer control over, and scrutiny of, agricultural practices is embedded thanks to the power of instant communication, Mr Keogh believes the big lesson of the 2011 suspension has been that the concept of social licence is real.
What the event showed the beef industry was that social licence had to be considered as a priority issue in a proactive manner, not as something that was responded to when a crisis arises.
“The Australian livestock export sector has a fantastically good story to tell, both from the perspective of the economic benefits its brings - in particular to northern Australia - and, equally important, from the view of the major advances that are occurring in export destination countries as a result of Australian initiatives,” he said.
However, while this is widely acknowledged by international agencies and in official reviews of ESCAS, it is still virtually unheard of in Australia.
Mr Keogh said social licence was now a critical part of the operating environment of any industry and those who neglect it suffer real damage as a consequence.
“One needs only to look at the gas extraction industry in NSW and Queensland to get an understanding of the consequences of a loss of social licence,” he said.
“Social licence is a bit like a driving licence - if you get too many demerit points it can easily be taken away.”
While some progress had been made in improving the understanding of the broader community about the benefits the live cattle trade brings, Mr Keogh believes it is fair to say community attitudes are best characterised as ‘tolerant of the trade’, rather than supportive and recognising the benefits.
Put simply, much work still needs to be done to shore up the sector’s social licence, he argues.
What would happen if another ‘A Bloody Business’ came along?
ALEC’s Alison Penfold said the industry had dealt with it again many times since 2011 and in far worse circumstances.
“Other incidences of horrific footage have been aired and we’ve not faced the level of debate about banning the trade,” she said.
“A combination of having a system that enables us to treat the problem and the fact the industry is better at responding to the concerns of the public,” she said.
While the concept of social licence had been a steep learning curve for the industry, the change in its approach - to bring others into its confidence, to share information - had been monumental, she said.
“Today we are even calling out the problems ourselves,” she said.
“The average person walking down the street does not have much knowledge of our trade and can be easily persuaded to the nasties.
“So we need to make sure they understand the processes that are in place and that very few animals, in relation to the number exported, die on the voyage.”
Ms Penfold said live export was not ‘top of mind for the community’.
“We know that when issues arise, people’s concern about the trade is based on animal welfare - that’s something industry shares,” she said.
“When we’ve had the opportunity to talk about the changes we’ve put in place, it has resonated well.
“People are pleased to see Australia stepping up to the plate and having this influence globally on animal welfare.”