While Meat and Livestock Australia is emerging as the focus of cattle industry anger over the mishandling of the live export issue, a key industry review two years ago dismissed concerns about live exports to Indonesia as the work of “animal activists” trying to “turn the community against” live cattle exports to Indonesia. The review also proposed to reduce the proportion of levy funds directed at animal welfare.

The Meat and Livestock Association is another example of the growing Australian phenomenon of hybrid industries. The MLA is a corporation funded by a levy on cattle sales to undertake marketing, expand demand for beef and coordinate industry issues. It also funds research on a dollar-for-dollar basis with the federal government.

The MLA thus isn’t a government body, but it holds its position by virtue of government regulation. In addition to half-and-half research funds, the cattle transaction levy — until 1991 it was a “slaughter levy” — is collected by the Department of Finance and passed on to the MLA, for a charge of $900,000 a year. A separate body, LiveCorp, which works closely with MLA, also charges a live export levy, and oversees the handling of cattle, sheep and goats onto, aboard and off ships, but apparently not the slaughtering of live exports overseas.

The MLA’s levy is where the “Beef Marketing Funding Committee” comes in.

In 2005, the Howard Government approved an increase in the levy from $3.50 per head to $5.00 for additional beef marketing, but only temporarily. After five years, a review was to be conducted and if industry did not support the continuation of the increase, it would revert to $3.50.

A committee was formed of industry heavyweights, chaired by Queensland cattle baron Peter Hughes (who complained recently that the 4 Corners report was biased). It reported in May 2009. By that time, as we now know, the industry had been aware of, and notionally seeking to address, the conditions of slaughter of live export cattle for nearly a decade.

The report recommended that the higher levy be retained, and provided an extended SWOT analysis of the cattle industry, including the live export industry, and its markets. Bear in mind, this was a report by the industry’s leaders — listed on page 4 of the report — and not by the MLA or Livecorp.

On live exports, the report notes that 75% of all live cattle exports go to Indonesia and plainly sees Indonesia as the key growth market for live exports, because Malaysia and the Philippines are contracting markets. The report lays out a strategy for expanding marketing in Indonesia to drive increased demand for Australian beef.

And amongst “Threats”, the report identifies “Continued campaigns by animal activists to stop the livestock export trade”, and its response is:

Despite 99 .9% of all cattle exported arriving fit and healthy at their destination in recent years, animal activists who oppose the export of livestock continue to carry out public relation campaigns designed to turn the community against the trade. The current industry strategy to improve community awareness and support for the Australian livestock export trade will need to be continued . The current strategy aims to use media and events such as Royal Shows to inform and demonstrate to the community the systems and practices in place to provide high levels of care for cattle exported.

The report also outlines an indicative budget for live exports markets: it proposes to keep funding for “improving welfare standards” at $186,000 pa, keep “community support” at $725,000 pa, but boost market development activities from over $900,000 to over $1m pa.

The view of the industry that animal welfare was a significantly lower priority than growing markets and was merely an issue being pushed by “animal activists” is confirmed by another, independent report on the levy increase, commissioned by the Committee and the MLA, by consultants Warwick Yates and Assoc and Econsearch (interestingly, the report concludes Indonesia only makes up half of live exports).

In much more detail than the Committee’s report, the consultants delve into the issue of community concern about the welfare of live exports and — declare victory. The report details how the industry significantly ramped up its funding for a “community concern program”, a marketing campaigned aimed at assuring people the cattle industry was humane.

Between 2004-05 and 2008-09, funding for the live export component of the community concern program more than doubled to $725,000, far more than the amounts being spend “improving welfare standards” in Indonesia.

All livestock industries are coming under increasing scrutiny by some sections of the community and media, particularly around issues of animal welfare and the environment. The beef industry can be proud of its record in these areas and also of the work currently being undertaken to improve both animal welfare and environment issues. It is important that the community is engaged and informed of the facts on these issues so that they can take pride in the work done by Australia’s beef industry.

The report goes through in great detail all aspects of the “community concern program”, from advertising to the use of Royal Shows to media management. Using an array of metrics, the consultants conclude:

The Community Concern Program has been successful as a proactive tool to counter and moderate public opinion previously shaped by those opposed to the live export industry, and to underpin the community’s trust in the beef industry. This program is an essential adjunct to the Live Export Program and should continue to counter animal rights activist rhetoric with facts about the live export industry. As focus intensifies on the management of natural resources and concerns for animal welfare grow, it will be increasingly important to not only address these issues but also to continue to tell the broader story of integrity behind the beef industry.

In short, concerns about animal welfare in the live export trade were regarded by the industry as a simple marketing problem — “animal rights activist rhetoric” that needed to be countered by advertising, soft-soap media stories and Royal Shows.

Attempts by some in the industry to shift the blame onto the MLA might be partly justified, but the evidence shows the entire industry was responsible for an attitude that regarded the solution to animal welfare concerns as more money for PR consultants.

Peter Fray

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