Footage of cattle being brutalized in Indonesian slaughterhouses has prompted calls here for a ban on Australian livestock exports and highlighted international gaps in animal welfare standards.
The footage, secretly gathered by animal rights activists and shown on Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) television earlier this week, provoked an unprecedented public outcry. Australia's Agriculture Minister Joe Ludwig immediately banned the export of cattle to 11 slaughterhouses featured in the current affairs program, and is considering suspending the trade to Indonesia altogether.
Animal welfare groups and some politicians are urging him to go further and ban all live exports out of Australia. But livestock farmers and industry groups say the economic impact of such a move would be harsh, and they are calling instead for better training of overseas slaughterhouse workers and improved monitoring.
“It would have major economic ramifications,” says Luke Bowen, executive director of the Northern Territory Cattlemen’s Association, which represents many livestock farmers.
The world’s biggest exporter of live animals, Australia sends hundreds of thousands of cattle and sheep to dozens of countries around the world every year. Half a million cattle – 60 percent of the total – go to its northern neighbor, Indonesia, for fattening and slaughtering, in a trade worth $351 million.
Now that trade is in jeopardy, following the backlash over scenes of cows dying long, apparently agonizing deaths after being whipped, beaten, and kicked.
“Watching it was the most distressing experience I’ve ever had, in 20 years working in animal welfare,” says Bidda Jones, chief scientist of the Royal Society for the Protection of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA). “And the fact that the cruelty was so systemic was extremely disturbing.”
Humane slaughter of animals
The Australian meat and livestock industry has been training Indonesian slaughterhouse workers for the past decade, but it admitted this week that the treatment of cattle exposed by ABC was unacceptable. “It [the footage] was horrific,” says Mr. Bowen.
In Australia – as in the United States, Canada, and the European Union – cattle must be stunned before being slaughtered. While stunning is less common in developing countries, Indonesia is a signatory to an international standard set by the Paris-based World Organization for Animal Health that requires animals be slaughtered humanely.
Animal rights groups have long condemned Australia’s live export trade, questioning the conditions in which animals are transported on long sea voyages and the welfare standards at their destinations. Dr. Jones says that it's not uncommon for at least 2 percent of sheep shipped to the Middle East and other regions die en route.
There was an international outcry in 2004 after 5,000 sheep died on an Australian ship bound for Saudi Arabia. The Australian government suspended the export of live sheep to Egypt in 2006 after a television program exposed cruel practices in slaughterhouses there. The trade has since resumed but is limited to one designated feedlot and processing center.
Government under pressure
With MPs bombarded by protests from their constituents this week – some veteran politicians say they have never experienced such a massive response to a single issue – analysts say Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s Labor government is under intense pressure to act robustly. Some Labor backbenchers, along with some independent and Greens Party MPs who prop up the minority government, want a ban on exports to countries that fail to meet Australian standards.
While observers say that is unlikely to happen overnight, Mr. Ludwig has not ruled out a total ban on exports to Indonesia. Bowen, of the cattlemen's association, acknowledged that cattle farmers were “sickened” by the ABC program, but warned that a ban would cause hardship to thousands of people.
“The stark reality, particularly in northern Australia where there is no processing facility [slaughterhouse], is that we’ve got an industry that for many producers is entirely reliant on the Indonesian live market.”
Jones, who analyzed the footage, says that animals died after an average of 11 cuts to the throat, and some were stabbed as many as 33 times.
Indonesia responded by promising to investigate its processing facilities, but it admitted that an animal welfare law drafted two years ago had yet to be implemented. The country’s largest Islamic organization, the Indonesia Ulema Council, condemned cruel slaughter practices as “sinful.” In Indonesia, halal authorities permit cattle to be stunned before being killed.