Tuesday, April 9, 2013

PUBLIC CONSULTATION OPENS ON NEW CATTLE AND SHEEP WELFARE STANDARDS


The Australian Animal Welfare Strategy has opened public consultation [View Here] on the drafts of the proposed Animal Welfare Standards and Guidelines for cattle and sheep.


The draft Standards and Guidelines [View Here] seek to replace the out-dated Model Codes of Practice for the Welfare of Animals (‘MCOP’). The aim of the Australian Animal Welfare Strategy is to create national standards for animal welfare that the states and territories can then enact into mirror legislation so as to create a consistent, national framework.

The Standards and Guidelines have been drafted in cooperation with the federal government, state governments, industry organisations, Animal Health Australia and animal welfare organisations.

Separate drafts exist for cattle, sheep, horses and land transport, and are divided into obligatory standards and discretionary guidelines. The standards are intended to be clear essential requirements for animal welfare that can be verified and transferred into legislation, whereas the guidelines are not intended to be enforced in legislation, but incorporated into national industry quality assurance programs.

The Consultation Regulation Impact Statement to the Standards and Guidelines emphasises that livestock industries have not found the existing model codes useful because of their inconsistent, complex and often confusing mixture of equivocal and peremptory language - leaving the content of actual obligations unclear. The new standards seek to provide greater certainty for all stakeholders, particularly livestock industries, by giving the standards legislative effect and achieving national consistency to promote the development of national quality assurance programs.


General
Although the Standards are couched in very broad obligations, such as ‘A person must take reasonable actions to ensure the welfare of cattle under their care’, the Guidelines provide a little more detail. However, the proposed Standards and Guidelines are still much less detailed than the MCOP.

Despite this, the relative lack of detail in the Standards enables verifiable obligations to be created that may then be translated into legislation. Difficulty may arise in enforcing such broad standards and determining what is ‘reasonable’ under certain circumstances, however, new standards are clearly necessary to reassess practices which may have once been deemed acceptable in light of new knowledge and changing attitudes.


Abattoirs
A particular area of interest raised by the draft Standards and Guidelines is in relation to abattoir operation and humane killing practices. A separate MCOP exists for animal slaughter, however, the new drafts have incorporated regulations for humane killing within the species-specific Standards and Guidelines.

The MCOP for animal slaughter is a vague collection of recommendations on best practices, with few mandatory obligations. In contrast, the draft Standards and Guidelines stipulate specific, verifiable obligations that can later be effected by legislation. Notably, the Standards create an obligation that animals must be unconscious before slaughter, and that any killing must be conducted or supervised by a person with the relevant knowledge, skill and experience.
If the obligation to render an animal unconscious before killing in the Standards and Guidelines is enacted into legislation, as intended, there may be repercussions for the practice of halal and kosher slaughter. Depending upon interpretations of the Quran, some halal slaughter may prohibit the animal from being unconscious prior to slaughter.

The current legislative regime is governed by the Export Control (Meat and Meat Products) Orders 2005 made under the Export Control Act 1985. These orders provide that meat regulated under the Act must comply with the Australian Meat Standard, which necessitates stunning before slaughter, unless approval to dispense with prior stunning is given under the Australian Government Muslim Slaughter Program. Moreover, the MCOP for the slaughter of animals ‘encourage’ the stunning of animals for religious slaughter, but does not mandate it. The most common form of halal slaughter in Australia does, in fact, comply with the current standard, yet uses a reversible rather than irreversible form of stunning. However, kosher slaughter does not comply with this standard and animals remain conscious at the time of slaughter.
Enacting legislation that mandates unconsciousness before slaughter will have dramatic effect on the practice of halal slaughtering. Abattoirs that do not stun livestock before slaughter will have to change their practices by law, and abattoirs that use reversible stunning will have to take extra precautions to proceed with slaughter before the animal regains consciousness. However, given the political controversy and possible curtailment to religious freedom, the most likely outcome of enacting the Standards into legislation is that the procedure to allow for religious slaughter without prior stunning upon special application will be preserved.
The Standards and Guidelines further prescribe that any killing must be conducted or supervised by a person with the relevant knowledge, skills and experience. Export Accredited abattoirs are required to have all killing supervised by a licensed veterinarian. If the Standards were enacted into legislation, this could obligate the abattoirs that are not export-accredited to employ either a veterinarian or someone else of appropriate knowledge to supervise each slaughter. This would certainly level the playing-field between the two classes of abattoirs in terms of mandated expenditure, and contribute effectively to national consistency in animal welfare.


Transport
The public consultation period for the Standards and Guidelines for the transport of livestock [View Here] has already closed - receiving 119 submissions, primarily from the livestock industry.

Over half the submissions indicated they were satisfied with the draft Standards and Guidelines for loading, transporting and unloading; however, over half indicated they were dissatisfied with the species-specific Standards and Guidelines, citing the need for clarity, more detail and stricter practices.

Several submissions have specifically called for a ban on electric prodding and stricter regulations on loading densities and travel in extreme temperatures.

However, 77% of submissions indicated that they felt there was a definite need for new standards to replace the out-dated MCOP.


Concluding comments
The consultation period for public comment on the standards is open until 6 May 2013.

Woolworths [View Here] and Coles [View Here] have publicly committed to improving animal welfare standards and increasing efforts to purchase from suppliers adhering to good practices. While this may be seen as a cynical marketing ploy, the new Standards and Guidelines should provide specific obligations that suppliers can be held to. Consequently, the public will be able to more clearly verify whether the produce supplied by supermarkets is held up to these standards and contemporary community expectations of animal welfare.

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