Allegations that feed additives, including drugs used to treat asthma, are being given to Australian cattle in Indonesian feedlots have the potential to again threaten the future of the live export industry.

According to Indonesian Beef Producer and Lot Feeder Association chairman Dayan Antoni, during the past year there has been a spike in the use of Salbutamol in cattle feed, which enhances muscle growth and reduces fat in affected animals.

Salbutamol is most commonly known for treating asthma, marketed as Ventolin among other brand names. It has also been used by body builders for fat-burning purposes.

I spoke to Antoni during a recent trip to Jakarta to investigate the impact of Australia’s decision to ban live exports to the country earlier this year, after the Gold Walkley-winning Four Corners investigation. While the Australian livestock industry was brought to its knees, the Indonesian industry also suffered a huge blow. In Indonesia I visited abattoirs and spoke with abattoir workers and cattle importers — both Indonesian and Australian — to gain their opinion on all that has unravelled since the ban was lifted.

Antoni — who is also the head of government relations and business development for JAPFA, one of Indonesia’s largest agri-food companies — says drugged animals are easily detected because “the carcass yield produced out of the animals was enormous”.

“A normal Brahman cross cattle in an Indonesian feedlot would produce about 49% [carcass to live weight], maximum 51% — if they’re a better breed,” he said.

However as the drugging has become more rampant, Antoni says cattle are reaching 56-57%.

While he’s unable to comment specifically on the number of feedlotters using Salbutamol, he says it’s a growing problem with some feedlotters using the drug unknowingly, confused about what feed additives are legal to use under Indonesian law.

“There’s a public health issue and an animal welfare issue because we are giving the drug in the feed, then to the animal and that drug forces the heart to move faster — the animal can actually go into a coma and this can result in death,” he said.

When consumed by humans the poisoned meat can have serious side effects ranging from muscle cramps, vision changes, eye pain, and irregular heartbeat. It can also result in difficulties during pregnancy causing birth defects and can prove fatal.

Antoni said the issue must be addressed with the “Australian industry because they now have control of the supply chain”.

Under the federal government’s new supply chain assurance framework Australian exporters must ensure Australian livestock exported for slaughter is treated to international animal welfare requirements right through the supply chain. Failure to do so can result in anything from cancelling an exporter’s license through to criminal sanctions.

“So if something happens, they need to take charge of the supply chain — they need to discuss it with the importers [and say] ‘don’t use this’,” Antoni said.

“If you’re using substances that affect the animal — of course they can’t say it’s affecting the Indonesian people because that’s for the Indonesian government to deal with — but this is affecting Australian cattle — you’re making this cattle suffer basically. I want to address this to again remind the industry that they have the obligation and responsibility to remind importers about their supply chain control.”

According to Antoni the Indonesian government imposed a 30-day “elimination and withdrawal” period which ends this week. If cattle are found displaying symptoms of the drugging at the weeks close Antoni said the association will have the mandate to take action.

“If we find someone is still using it we can report it to the government,” he said.

Antoni raised the issue with Meat and Livestock Australia, Livecorp and the Australian Live Export Council in October during a meeting held in Jakarta.

This was confirmed by MLA media affairs manager Belinda Roseby, who said that at a meeting on October 10 between importers, exporters and Australian industry representatives, “the issue of illegal feed additives was raised by Dayan in his closing remarks as an issue for the industry to address”.

She went on to say: “MLA has no ability to neither investigate the claims nor take any action on the claims that illegal additives are being used — this is the role of the Indonesia authorities.”

Livecorp declined to comment on the matter. Crikey also approached the Australian Live Export Council and the Department of  Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry but they did not come back before deadline.

While the hands of MLA and Livecorp may be tied, Antoni emphasised their role, particularly earlier in the year prior to the ban on live exports, in improving animal welfare standards in Indonesia.

“We had a meeting back in February this year with MLA and Livecorp to address the animal welfare issues,” Antoni said. “They asked us to please use stunning and we said these are the problems — our culture, mindset — they are more difficult than they realise.”

These fresh allegations of animal cruelty come just six months after the Four Corners program “A Bloody Business” exposed graphic footage of cattle being mistreated in several Indonesian abattoirs.

The subsequent ban on all live exports to Indonesia left Australian pastoralists and transporters reeling, with initial reports suggesting the ban could last for up to six months and cost the industry hundreds of millions of dollars. As it turned out, the ban was lifted one month later — but not without casualties.

According to a survey conducted by the Australian Bureau of Agricultural Resource Economics and Sciences (ABARES), approximately 325 people were estimated to have either been laid off or not hired between the start of the suspension and the resumption of trade at the end of June. They included an estimated 161 people from the Northern Territory, 99 from Western Australia and 64 in Queensland.

Antoni insists that Australian exporters must take action to prevent the industry from once again coming to a standstill and fears this “one serious issue could be a much bigger animal welfare issue than the one that developed this year in Australia”.