SPECIALIST agribusiness lawyer Trent Thorne says the boxed beef trade’s viability is one of several myths used to support demands for the live cattle trade’s demise while being touted as a means of improving animal welfare.
Mr Thorne, of Brisbane’s McCullough Robertson lawyers, said the Federal Government’s snap suspension of the live cattle trade to Indonesia last June caused an escalation in misinformed debate around the industry, especially in social media.
He said that in particular, critics were incorrectly saying the live export industry had forced abattoirs in northern Australia to close and banning live exports could make them viable again.
Mr Thorne said several other myths were being perpetuated about the trade including that meat processing could occur domestically and frozen beef could be sent to the relevant Asian markets; and that cattle transportation on live export vessels is inherently cruel.
He said those comments were made so frequently that the wider urban community started believing that the various allegations had merit, despite the fact they lacked any factual basis.
Most abattoirs in the northern regions closed more than 15 years ago, well before the live export industry started to send large numbers of cattle to Indonesia, the biggest live export market. The closure of these abattoirs was primarily due to poor economic viability, caused by several factors.
Mr Thorne said northern abattoirs were forced to close for about four months every year because of the wet season, as producers were unable to deliver cattle to the abattoirs over this period.
The difficulty in obtaining staff in these remote areas was a problem that had only been exacerbated by the resources boom.
The cattle herd on most of the northern properties are from the Bos Indicus breeds, which are genetically adapted to excel in tropical environments and poor quality pastures but not favoured by Australian meat-eating consumers who have historically eaten beef derived from the Bos Taurus breeds.
The northern abattoirs didn’t have sufficiently large population bases near to their operations to economically justify their continued operation.
Mr Thorne said the meat processing sector was also one of the more volatile industries in the country, which is evidenced by the frequent closure of abattoirs that are much closer to larger urban populations than those in the northern parts of Australia.
Any finally, he said most cattle stations in the Northern Territory were “breeder blocks” not attempting to fatten cattle for slaughter.
Mr Thorne said a report from the Federal Senate inquiry established after the snap suspension which investigated operations and animal welfare conditions in all of Australia’s export markets, not just Indonesia, had also echoed similar sentiments.
He quoted a section of the report which said: “The live export industry plays an important role in the Australian economy. It is also a significant source of training, employment and business opportunities for indigenous communities. The committee does not support the argument that phasing out of the live export industry would reinvigorate the domestic (meat) processing sector.
“The committee is also not persuaded that the benefit to the processing sector would justify the economic and social dislocation involved”.
Mr Thorne said while AA Co was considering building an abattoir near Darwin, the project would require a “substantial” amount of Territory and Federal Government funding for infrastructure, to make the commercial opportunity a reality.
“The vulnerability of the live export industry was laid bare because of the suspension in June 2011 and these northern regions do need processing facilities closer to the producing regions to offset the massive transport costs that make it presently unviable to send cattle to facilities at Rockhampton or Biloela or further south,” he said.
“However, it is clear that private commercial operators cannot open these abattoir facilities in these regions without some form of government funding and assistance.”
Mr Thorne said Australia does process and export a large amount of packaged frozen meat to overseas countries but that won’t work in Indonesia or South East Asia.
He said one of the main problems for the average rural Indonesian consumer a problem shared across large parts of South East Asia is that they have no access to refrigeration facilities.
Most of the meat and produce sold in these areas were sold via wet markets, Mr Thorne said, where the consumers purchased meat within hours of the animal being slaughtered, and the product was then taken home and eaten almost immediately.
Also, the transportation infrastructure in rural Indonesian was poor and there was limited access to refrigerated trucks to distribute frozen meat.
“From the consumer’s perspective, there is also a benefit in purchasing their meat fresh from wet markets as they can definitely determine that the meat has been processed in accordance with their religious beliefs halal,” Mr Thorne said.
“Also, the boxed beef and live export trade are not perfect substitutes, as they appeal to different segments within a market. More affluent, urban-based consumers are likely to shop at a supermarket and would be satisfied with frozen meat, whereas rural consumers require meat to be freshly slaughtered.”
Mr Thorne also quoted Meat and Livestock Australia’s submission to the Senate’s inquiry which said, if Australia ceased to supply livestock to overseas markets, the trade would not simply be replaced by the chilled and frozen meat trade, which was evidenced when Australian sheep exports were banned to Saudi Arabia in 2004.
MLA said livestock imports from other destinations increased, but in contrast, “not an extra kilogram of Australian boxed sheepmeat was sold to this market in 2004”.
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