IN THE NEWS: On JUN 3, 2018
It was the only recommendation of the live exports review that the government did not agree to implement immediately. Now Fairfax Media can reveal why.
Hidden behind confusing jargon and acronyms, recommendation four of Michael McCarthy's snap review into the live export trade called for what would have constituted an effective ban on the summer live trade effective July 1 this year. It required such drastic changes to animal welfare standards that exporters would have been left with no other choice than to close down.
The review was commissioned after footage filmed by a whistleblower onboard the Awassi Express, operated by the Perth-based Emanuel Exports, showed sheep boiling to death during a heatwave on their way to the Middle East in August last year. A total of 2400 sheep died.
When Agriculture Minister David Littleproud viewed the footage he said what he saw was "total bullshit" and commissioned a snap review, promising it would be finished "in time to make any recommended changes to the 2018 northern summer trade".
That review recommended what would have constituted an immediate ban of the summer trade but because it is not clear to the untrained eye, the government has been allowed to escape scrunity over why it decided to delay accepting Dr McCarthy's single most crucial recommendation.
What was recommendation four?
Recommendation four does not state or explicitly call for a ban but drastically lowers the level of what is deemed an acceptable level of heat stress sheep can endure on their journey.
Labelled "Heat Stress Risk", it says: "As an interim measure, it is recommended that the risk be set at a 2 per cent probability of 5 per cent of the sheep becoming affected by heat stress.
"These settings should be reviewed by the ASEL Review Technical Advisory Committee at the end of this northern hemisphere summer period and, again, annually by an independent taskforce," it said.
The report's executive summary provided the timeframe: "In terms of immediate action: the risk settings in the Heat Stress Risk Assessment model can be changed reasonably quickly and should be operational for this northern hemisphere summer or at a minimum by July 1, 2018."
What does this mean?
Previously, the industry had made their risk assessments based on how many animals might die at sea - a mortality limit - based on a 2 per cent probability that 5 per cent of sheep might die.
But under Dr McCarthy's model, the mortality limit would have been replaced with a heat stress threshold and set the upper limit at the "onset of heat stress" instead of death.
At the "onset of heat stress" a sheep can be seen visibly panting with its tongue out. In these conditions, the animal would appear to be in "extreme discomfit" and have "laboured breathing" with a respiratory rate nearly 10 times higher than its normal level.
To prevent this upper limit from being breached, Dr McCarthy's report set out a way to calculate how many sheep could be allowed on board subject to a particular deck's ventilation system - known as pen air turnover.
The report's own projections say ships could face stocking reductions by as much as 85 per cent. In the case of the Awassi Express, this means that last year's voyage of 63,804 sheep could have been slashed to as low as 9570.
Freedom-of-information documents provided to Fairfax Media reveal that in a worst-case scenario for exporters, one of the key vessels doing the Gulf route - the Al Shuwaikh - would need to reduce by 68 per cent to 92 per cent the number of sheep allowed on most decks in June, July, August and September.
Cuts this mammoth would make the trade so unviable it would collapse.
The government did not adopt the recommendation
Tellingly, the report said: "It is anticipated that this new setting will impose significant restrictions on many vessels wishing to participate in the trade during the northern hemisphere summer period."
The RSPCA told Fairfax Media that in a meeting with the Department of Agriculture they were told: "the reason the government wants to undertake further consultation and testing on that recommendation is because it would effectively 'end the summer trade and that was not government policy'."
"If the government's policy does not accord with recommendations of a review they instigated, then it is clear that this policy needs to change," Bidda Jones, of RSPCA Australia, said.
"Legal obligations cannot simply be ignored, nor should review findings be orchestrated to play political favouritism," Dr Jones said.
"Had the integrity of this review not been compromised through political intervention, these summer shipments would not be departing."
When asked to confirm the RSCPA's account, the Department of Agriculture did not directly address or answer the question.
Instead it said: "The department supports the recommendations made by Dr McCarthy and is working to implement them, subject to further testing of the findings relating to heat stress risk assessment."
The minister's response
Agriculture Minister David Littleproud said the government accepted recommendation four but was delaying its implementation because he said Dr McCarthy's model for how to achieve the welfare standards on board needed more work.
"We accepted all 23 recommendations," he told Fairfax Media.
"We have accepted the science but could not in good conscience impose a vague range reduction on businesses of between 15 and 85 per cent without doing further science."
Dr McCarthy himself says in his review: "there may be … the need to refine what has been stated due to the nature of the review being so time-bound".
"Recommendation 4 is a good one – it could create incentive for exporters to invest in better boats which improve animal welfare – but required further science and testing, which I've committed to doing in coming months."
Work is under way on recommendation four but it remains unclear how soon that will be finished and Dr McCarthy's new animal welfare test is put into practice.