Double standards in meat industry safety vs live trade

Double standards in meat industry safety.
By Tony Cooke
West Australian Newspaper 22 Sept 2004

There are diseases known for their transmission from animals to humans are called zoonotic.

The Australian Quarantine and Inspection Service has made a training video aptly titled Not just a dose of flu to warn their inspectors of the risks they run in doing their job.

One of the more virulent zoonotic diseases is Q fever. The active pathogen is most often found in the urine of goats, cattle and sheep and can survive outside their bodies for up to nine months. And it is much more serious than a dose of the flu, though is often misdiagnosed because that is how it presents in its early stages.

WorkSafe has just issued a media release warning of the approaching peak season for the disease.

Unfortunately, the tight regulation of abattoirs, aimed at maintaining both workers’ and public health, doers not apply to live animal exports. The animals have to be dead before we are concerned with its ability to injure our health. This is one of many paradoxes that distinguish the treatment of the meat processing industry from live exports.

The State Government’s meat processing industry task force reported on these matters six months ago. The task force was restricted by politics and the prevailing economic orthodoxy to examining only issues of “competitive neutrality” between the two industries. The results make interesting reading.

The $60 vaccination charge for Q fever is only compulsory for workers in meat processing. Presumably that is because workers handling and transporting live exports are somehow immune. But it amounts to a $60 per employee charge against one industry and not the other.

The central issue is health and safety. AQIS does an admirable job maintaining Australia’s international reputation in trade in agricultural products. But it does not inspect live animals for export. AQIS says it inspects documents provided by the vets employed by the exporter. The live export industry is self regulated by the Livestock Exporter Accreditation program- yet another great LEAP of faith.

So when the Cormo Express was steaming around in circles in the Indian Ocean creating a diplomatic incident between Australia and Saudi Arabia, our diplomats didn’t have independent advice. There was no AQIS guarantee to support the case that the unfortunate passengers were disease free when they left the country.

So there is a well-concealed risk in the current arrangements. To what extent are our high quarantine standards and the excellent reputation of AQIS compromised? State health regulations also make interesting exceptions for live exporters. We all know it can get distinctly woofy near Fremantle when a sheep ship is in port. Encroaching urbanisation has forced numerous abattoirs, including Robbs Jetty, to close. High among the reasons is the tight environmental regulations applying to the meat processing industry. Yet these same constraints do not seem to apply for live exports. To add insult to injury, the meat industry not only has to comply with these layers of regulation, but also to meet with the costs of these inspections.

The most significant single cost for meat processors is the price of livestock. Here again they must compete with the live export industry, with its effective hidden subsidies. So a heavily regulated industry has to compete with a relatively unregulated one for the same raw material. Hardly a position of competitive neutrality.

The State task force estimated that the additional cost to meat processors of the fees, charges and compliance costs was equivalent to a further 10 percent on the price of stock bought for processing.

Interestingly, various reports place the costs of labour as a proportion of overall production cost in the meat processing industry at 10 to 12 percent. So if true competitive neutrality was achieved, the reduction in fees and charges would just about meet the wage bill for the processors. This may explain why, since live exporters began 20 years ago, about 50 abattoirs and between 10,000 and 14,000 jobs have been lost, mostly in regional communities.

I’ve seen the State Treasurers letter to the task force. It is full of claptrap about the distorting effects of tax subsidies on a mystical market. But not once does it admit that ineffective tax subsidies already favour the live exporters while reducing community protections and punishing the meat industry.

While all stock needs to be transported, you should look differently at those trucks travelling west on Leach Highway and remember that there are no abattoirs left in Fremantle. While they appear to be in top gear, the State Treasury says they are competitively in neutral. But any nasty little deposits on your windscreen, while amusing the kids in the back, may be more than a joke.

The truck drivers concerned are probably at much greater risk of disease; but if symptoms persist consult your doctor.

 

 

 

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