3 July 2020

The Al Kuwait has arrived in the Middle East. RSPCA WA sent the following opinion piece to The West Australian newspaper but unfortunately it has not been published.

The Al Kuwait arrived this week in the Middle East with around 35,000 Australian sheep, leaving in its wake renewed controversy over live sheep exports.

Despite new regulations preventing sheep exports to the Middle East from June to mid-September, the operators of the Al Kuwait were able to get an exemption from the Federal Department of Agriculture to export the sheep after the 1 June deadline. It was scheduled to arrive in the Middle East this week, one month after the commencement of the export suspension.

The regulations are there to protect animal welfare. Sheep exported into the heat and humidity of the Middle Eastern summer suffer from heat stress and some die. This risk is not mitigated by reducing stocking densities. Animal welfare science and meteorologic data have shown that even a single sheep alone on a ship risks suffering heat stress in the everyday weather of the Arabian Gulf.

The Al Kuwait exemption reignited public and political debate over live sheep exports. In recent weeks, some correspondents to The West’s letters page have suggested that without live sheep, residents of Middle Eastern countries would be deprived of meat. Indeed, the owners of the Al Kuwait, Kuwait Live Transport and Trading (KLTT) made similar statements and even threatened that Kuwait could refuse to import other WA agricultural commodities if this shipment was not allowed.

Why the desperation over a single shipment? Already, millions of consumers in Middle Eastern countries consume Australian sheep meat slaughtered here to internationally recognised halal standards, stunned prior to slaughter to conform to Australian animal welfare laws and exported chilled or frozen.

Much of this consumption takes place in developed markets such as Dubai and other Emirates. These markets were, in the 80s and 90s, the largest consumers of sheep exported live from Australia. It’s not that live sheep killed over there are halal and sheep meat exported there isn’t, it is historically how these consumers buy meat. Many wet markets in the more advanced parts of the Middle East have been replaced by supermarkets and fresh food stores we would be familiar with. Accordingly, the value of Australia’s live sheep trade to those countries has reduced from a today’s dollar value of around $692m in the 1980s to just $140m last financial year.

Why are we continuing to export live sheep to this region? Partly, it’s because Kuwaiti companies have invested in a ship-load of infrastructure that has one purpose - to import live sheep.

Also important is that the investors including their Australian affiliates continue to support the less developed markets that seek live sheep to kill locally. This means rather than promote the benefits of buying sheep killed to Australian welfare standards to cultures which are becoming more sophisticated, the industry promotes a live exported product with lower welfare standards.

It is no coincidence that Kuwait is one of the largest importers of this lower welfare product, as it is the home of the owners of one of the largest live sheep importing infrastructures in the world. This company KLTT, its Australian affiliates operating here as Rural Export Trading WA (RETWA) and its very wealthy owners, have no incentive to improve lower welfare practices. In fact, it has a significant financial incentive not to do so.

There are cries about food security, with threats to source live sheep from other countries. South Africa and Romania have been mentioned as alternative sources of live sheep. But KLTT is currently fighting a Supreme Court injunction obtained by an animal welfare group preventing them from exporting 70,000 sheep from South Africa. And the European Union, of which Romania is a member, has just announced an “historic inquiry” into laws governing animal transport to and from the region.

Public concern in Australia is not the only risk factor. Apart from the continued poor welfare of exported sheep, the volatility of the trade poses a real risk to those WA sheep producers who continue to rely on live export. The Kuwaitis dominate the live export market, importing around two thirds of our sheep with most of the balance taken up by Jordanian-owned Livestock Shipping Services. One has to ask if relying on only two foreign-owned companies is a sensible position for our sheep producers to be placed.

Economic analyses show that without the live sheep trade the net effect would be hundreds of additional jobs in meat processing here. The live sheep trade can and should be replaced with the greater certainty of chilled or frozen meat to help create more secure jobs in WA. This is vital in regional areas, and most importantly to save thousands of sheep from inevitable and ongoing suffering.