The regulation of animal welfare in Australia’s primary industries remains profoundly flawed more than a year after the Productivity Commission identified serious problems with the system. The latest example of poultry regulation is a perfect summation of the problems the PC identified.

At the end of 2013, the commission released an extensive analysis of the state of regulation of Australian agriculture, and devoted a chapter to animal welfare regulation. While, from an economic perspective, the PC wasn’t interested in animal welfare per se, it recognised strong community support for animal welfare laws and a regulatory framework that took that into account. 

The commission described how there was little or no attempt to determine actual community attitudes to animal welfare, that the development and enforcement of animal welfare standards was primarily undertaken by government agencies, such as agriculture departments, with close links to industries using animals, and there was insufficient use of credible evidence from animal welfare science. It recommended that agriculture and primary industries bureaucrats be stripped of the role of overseeing the development of animal welfare standards, and that a new, independent, Commonwealth- and state-funded body, the Australian Commission for Animal Welfare, be established to determine animal welfare standards and to publicly assess the performance of state and territory governments in enforcement.

Despite commissioning the report back in late 2015 and having had the report since late 2016, the government has failed to respond.

For a decade, there’s been a slow national process of overhauling animal welfare standards to replace various voluntary codes of practice and patchwork regulation across states and territories, which have primary carriage of animal welfare regulation, with a set of national standards (which will be compulsory) and guidelines (which won’t).

After the Abbott government was elected and Barnaby Joyce became Agriculture Minister, the Commonwealth immediately walked away from leading the process — one of the reasons that the latest set of standards and guidelines (for the poultry industry) have taken so long to put together for public consultation. For industry, there is no reason to hurry toward new national standards, given they’re happy with the current, fairly loose code of practice around poultry, which allow for chickens to be subject to cage farming. The new standards will also cover bird slaughter, recently the subject of a 7.30 report that revealed sickening hidden-camera footage of a Victorian poultry abattoir where live, conscious birds were dragged into boiling water.

The abattoir — Star Poultry Supply — was allowed to keep operating by the Victorian Department of Agriculture, where animal health and welfare enforcement in that state is located, and only subjected to “increased regulatory oversight”.

The process for drafting the new standards and guidelines is managed by Animal Health Australia, a company owned by Commonwealth, state and territory governments and industry bodies, with the actual standards development undertaken by a group of industry and animal welfare representatives (the RSPCA and Animals Australia). While that process necessarily involves compromise by animal welfare groups. In February, the RPSCA threatened to abandoned the poultry standard process after the work of animal health scientists was distorted and misrepresented to support the retention of caged egg production — one of the key criticisms of the Productivity Commission of the current process. 

The new poultry standards and guidelines were released for public comment in late November and the RSPCA remains deeply unhappy with the lack of any acknowledgment of animal welfare evidence in them, with national president Gary Humphries saying that “any consideration for animal welfare in the Standards has been snubbed”. Humphries expressed concern that “some cage egg producers already try to convince their customers such standards are supported by the RSPCA. That’s simply not true.”

In its 2016 report, the PC noted that “it is imperative that the community has confidence that research used to inform policymaking is unbiased, credible and is conducted by qualified, independent researchers using robust research methods.” Under the current, increasingly discredited animal welfare standard process, the community can have no such confidence.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey