x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Cruelty in abattoirs outrages Australia

Video of Australian cows being slaughtered in Indonesia has promptest massive outrage in Australia. A petition to halt the live export trade gathered 200,000 names in three days.

SYDNEY // The footage of cattle dying long, agonising deaths after being beaten and whipped by abattoir workers "was horrific," Luke Bowen, executive director of the Northern Territory Cattlemen's Association, said.

The scenes - recorded by an animal-welfare activist and broadcast here last week - show Australian cows being slaughtered in Indonesia. Veteran politicians say no other issue has triggered such a massive feedback of outrage from constituents. A petition to halt the live export trade gathered 200,000 names in three days.

Now the spotlight is on the government, which is under pressure to respond to the public outcry, and on the livestock export industry, which is being asked why brutal practices appear to be rife in Indonesian abattoirs despite a decade of Australian training and the use of Australian-supplied equipment.

Australia is the world's largest exporter of live cattle, sheep and goats, sending animals around the globe, particularly to the Middle East and Asia; the UAE imported 58,000 Australian sheep and 1,000 cows in the nine months up to last March.

Half a million cattle, many of them from the Northern Territory, go to Indonesia every year for fattening and slaughter in a trade worth A$330 million (Dh1.3 billion). Now that industry is at risk, and bilateral diplomatic relations are delicately balanced, following the expose on ABC Television's Four Corners, an investigative current affairs programme.

The agriculture minister, Joe Ludwig, has already suspended exports to 12 abattoirs where filming took place, and is considering a total halt to the live trade with Indonesia, which takes 60 per cent of Australian cattle.

Animal welfare groups and some politicians want him to go further and ban the live export industry, arguing that long sea voyages are stressful, and that Australia has no control over the way animals are handled and slaughtered on arrival.

"We're exporting to countries that have no enforceable animal-welfare legislation and don't even comply with international minimum standards," said Bidda Jones, chief scientist of the Royal Society for the Protection of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA).

Ms Jones analysed footage shot by Lyn White, campaigns director of another advocacy group, Animals Australia. She found that cattle had their throats cut an average of 11 times before they died, and some were slashed 33 times by workers inexpertly wielding short, blunt knives.

Only four of the 120 or so Indonesian abattoirs where Australian cows end up use stun guns, which are mandatory in Australia and the European Union.

While halal authorities hold differing opinions about the acceptability of stunning cattle, in Indonesia - the world's most populous Muslim nation - certain techniques are permitted. The country's largest Islamic organisation, the Indonesia Ulema Council, last week condemned cruel slaughter practices as "sinful".

What shocked Four Corners viewers was not only the cows' slow, painful deaths, but the way they were brutalised beforehand, often with the use of metal "restraint boxes" supplied by the Australian export industry to help Indonesian workers cope with animals larger than those in the domestic herd.

The footage shows cattle being kicked and thrashed, and having their eyes gouged and tails broken, as abattoir staff try to force them into the boxes. (The boxes are not used in Australia.) The animals are seen smashing their heads repeatedly on concrete floors as they struggle and fall down.

In initial attempts to defuse the row, Cameron Hall, chief executive of LiveCorp, the umbrella company for exporters, insisted that "major progress" had been made in improving animal welfare standards in Indonesian abattoirs. But his comments provoking yet more outrage.

Don Heatley, the chairman of Meat and Livestock Australia, said yesterday that the industry body was "urgently investigating every avenue" to ensure that all Australian cattle were handled properly in that country.

Ms Jones accused exporters of hypocrisy, saying: "The industry has known about these problems for a long, long time. They've been working there, they've been into these places, they've seen the [restraint] boxes. Until the trade stops, Australian cattle will continue to be treated in the same way."

The live export trade - catering to countries unable to rear enough livestock to meet domestic demand for freshly slaughtered meat - has survived a series of controversies in recent years, including the death of 5,000 sheep on an Australian ship bound for Saudi Arabia in 2004.

The Australian government suspended live sheep exports to Egypt in 2006 after a television programme exposed cruelty in slaughterhouses there. Last year, Ms White filmed Australian sheep being bound with wire and stuffed into car boots during the Eid al-Adha festival of sacrifice.

Now some politicians in the ruling Labor Party, together with some of the independent and Greens Party MPs who are propping up Julia Gillard's minority government, want all live exports outlawed - except to countries that meet Australian welfare standards. That was the route taken by New Zealand in 2007, with the result that the trade has virtually ceased.

A ban on sending cattle to Indonesia would cause economic hardship in northern Australia, where there are no processing facilities and many cattle farmers are dependent on the export trade. The mayor of the Queensland town of Charters Towers, Ben Callcott, questioned whether Australia was responsible for policing slaughter practices overseas.

"As long as we keep things correct on our shore, that's all that bothers us, really, that's all our jurisdiction covers," he told ABC radio. "We have got to keep that live export trade at all cost, and I think Australia should butt out and stop demanding what other countries do."

But Mr Bowen, who represents Northern Territory cattle farmers, sees things differently. "People are saddened and horrified," he said.

"I've had producers ringing me and saying they'd rather go broke than be part of what they saw [on television]".

foreign.desk@thenational.ae