MINISTER for Agriculture David Littleproud has conceded a need for quicker release of live export independent observer reports and especially to exporters.
The nation’s live export regulator was this week criticised for delays in the release of independent observer reports from live sheep and cattle shipments, including some from voyages completed seven months ago.
The Department of Agriculture and Water Resources has claimed the delays are due to “logistical and legislative issues”, but industry sources have been concerned the regulator is under-resourced.
Last month the regulator was struggling to find enough observers and was forced to gauge any private sector interest in managing the controversial IO program. Mr Littleproud said today the department is still building to the number of IOs required.
“I understand IOs are immediately getting onto other voyages which slows the sign-off required for the reports and means they’re not necessarily released in chronological order.
“However, I also believe this must be improved and reports released faster,” the minister said.
“I’ve told exporters I agree they need to be given access to the reports, and quickly, so they may immediately improve on issues raised in the reports.”
The department this week released the first of the IO reports – for MV Bahijah, which shipped 9227 sheep and 3695 cattle to Israel in June this year, recording mortality rates of 0.18 percent for sheep (17 mortalities) and 0.03pc for cattle (one mortality) after a 22-day journey.
However, IO reports for 22 other live sheep and cattle shipments to the Middle East, China, Indonesia and Vietnam have not been released. Exporters involved in the shipments from as far back as April this year have also not seen the independent observer reports from the voyages.
RSPCA Australia senior policy officer Dr Jed Goodfellow this week revealed details of the RSPCA’s lengthy and ongoing fight to secure the release of these reports in the public’s interest.
“Despite the claims of greater transparency and high level of public concern, the RSPCA has been battling the Department of Agriculture for more than three months to obtain copies of the observer reports under Freedom of Information laws.
“Multiple amendments to requests, many hours of work by the RSPCA, and $1600 in processing fees later, and we’re still none the wiser,” he said.
Pastoralists and Graziers Association president Tony Seabrook said he could not believe the release of the IO reports was taking so long.
“They (the exporters) are pretty peeved – they are paying for this and they have a right to see the reports.
“And if it is an independent report, it ought not be reviewed by anybody and it should be available much more quickly,” he said.
Mr Seabrook said previous suggestions that the department was under-resourced had “incensed” Minister Littleproud, who responded that the department was not under-resourced.
“So I am at a loss here as to what the problem is.
“At a time when we are talking about transparency as being of the utmost importance, and these reports are part of the transparency process, I think it is disappointing,” he said.
“If these things are going to be transparent, I these reports need to be unedited and available very quickly after the voyage.
“If any remedial action needs to be taken, the people who are paying for it, the exporters, need to have access to that information,” Mr Seabrook.
“At the end of the day, what is the point of having an independent observer who can provide information that can be acted on, if it takes this amount of time for the report to come out?”
The recent Moss Review of the regulatory capability and culture of the Department of Agriculture and Water Resources in the regulation of live animal exports found that the reporting framework in relation to animal health and welfare on board export vessels has not been fully effective.
“In addition, the department had only a limited capacity to analyse and assess the reporting of animal welfare conditions,” the report said.
A department spokesperson said there have been a number of logistical and legislative issues that the department has had to work through to enable the publishing of summary Independent Observer reports.
“The department is publishing summary Independent Observer reports as soon as practicable after the voyage has been completed.
“The MV Bahijah voyage was the first summary report completed, so it was the first published by the department.”
The RSPCA also this week highlighted comments by the MV Bahijah’s independent observer on the level of heat stress suffered by livestock on the vessel.
The RSPCA said the IO report revealed that the voyage complied with the Australian Standards for the Export of Livestock but despite this, “a degree of heat stress existed for the sheep on board the vessel from the equator until passage of the Suez Canal” (a period of eight to ten days), peaking one particular afternoon when “open mouth panting and higher levels of heat stress existed across the ship.” The report noted that the heat stress was “unavoidable in the conditions.”
Dr Goodfellow described the MV Bahijah report as damning.
“The report confirms what the RSPCA and the Australian Veterinary Association have been saying all along – it is simply not possible to export sheep to the Middle East during the northern summer period of May to October without animals suffering heat stress,
“With all sheep affected by heat stress to a moderate or elevated degree, the outcomes of this voyage would have breached the new heat stress risk parameters set to be introduced following the McCarthy Review,” he said.
However, Mr Seabrook described the outcome of the shipment as “spectacular” and said sheep losses of 0.18pc cannot be matched on farms.
“If you multiply 0.18 out by 12 months; that is below on-farm losses,” he said.
Dr Goodfellow said the MV Bahijah report “is a very selective summary.”
“But what’s even more worrying is that we’re still awaiting the report from nine shipments before this one, and a further 13 shipments since.
“Why is it taking so long to ‘process’ those reports, and what critical information is being removed in the summarising? he asked.
The DAWR spokesperson said the new heat stress risk parameters for live exports have not been determined.
“Issues related to heat stress raised in the McCarthy Review are now being assessed as part of the work of the ASEL Review Technical Advisory Committee and the Heat Stress Risk Assessment review.”
The spokesperson said the IO reports are reviewed by a specific team in the department, which included a number of veterinary officers, to identify issues that need to be actioned, either through updating policies or procedures, or through further investigation.
“The development of the summary report for publication is the final part of the review process.
“The independent observer who prepared the report reviews the summary to ensure it is an accurate reflection of their observations.”
The spokesperson said it is not appropriate to comment on the details of particular current requests under the Freedom of Information Act 1982 (FOI Act).
“All requests received by the Department of Agriculture and Water Resources are processed in accordance with the FOI Act.
“The time for processing a request under the FOI Act may be suspended pending the payment of processing charges by the applicant as well as for other reasons as specified in the act.”