Actions of Bahrain a mystery

Melissa WilliamsCountryman

The reasons for Bahrain turning away a shipment of Australian sheep that were eventually culled in Pakistan, sparking outcry from animal welfare groups, remain unclear to the exporter at the centre of the controversy.

Speaking to the WA rural media this week for the first time since his return from Pakistan, Wellard executive director Steve Meerwald said as soon as the company's ship, the Ocean Drover, berthed in Bahrain on August 21, they realised something was amiss.

Usually discharge of stock in this market is very quick, involving inspection of animals by one to two veterinarians and documents being signed by local quarantine officials and the Wellard vet.

But, in a shift from usual procedures, local quarantine officials this time immediately approached the ship's captain.

These officials initially claimed there had been high mortalities on the ship. But the vet on board quickly undermined that argument with official voyage mortality reports.

Mr Meerwald said their focus then changed to claiming the sheep had scabby mouth and a further five officials arrived at the port within the hour, unprecedented on a public holiday in this market, dressed in hazard suits to conduct an inspection.

"In 33 years of exporting livestock we have never encountered such an event or heard of any other incidents like this," he said.

Mr Meerwald said the reason for this unusual reception in Bahrain remained unclear.

He said even if some sheep had scabby mouth, it was not a notifiable disease under the memorandum of understanding (MOU) Australia had with Bahrain.

Mr Meerwald said the Bahrain supply chain was approved under the Exporter Supply Chain Assurance System (ESCAS) and the country was one of the live export destination markets that was easy to work with. There had been no previous animal welfare issues.

Wellard managing director Mauro Balzarini said claims of scabby mouth were an excuse by Bahraini officials to move the ship on.

He said Bahrain imported about 20 million sheep annually - the bulk coming from Australia - and almost all shipments that arrived in that market would have some incidences of scabby mouth in sheep on board.

In the Wellard case, there were reports of between two and seven sheep out of 21,000 showing signs of scabby mouth.

"We see there was no reason - legal or otherwise - for Bahrain to have rejected that shipment on the grounds of scabby mouth," Mr Meerwald said.

He said Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry (DAFF) officials were notified by Wellard of the unfolding events.

These government agencies started discussions with Bahraini authorities, in accordance with agreed livestock health protocols and the MOU on live exports between the two countries.

During the time of these discussions and negotiations with local and independent health officials, the Ocean Drover was ordered to leave the port in Bahrain by the local harbour master and this occurred at midnight on August 22.

Bahrain did not formally reject the shipment on health grounds.

But the incident began to receive considerable media attention in Bahrain and Wellard said other consignments of chilled Australian and Pakistan meat were rejected.

An Emanuel Export shipment that was sailing from Australia about two days behind the Ocean Drover decided to divert from Bahrain and unloaded its cargo in Kuwait.

Mr Meerwald said through this period, its Bahraini importer - who had paid for the Wellard sheep consignment - was confident it could solve the problems at the port.

He said when it became apparent this could not be achieved, Wellard considered the option of euthanising the sheep at sea to guarantee animal welfare.

But this was dismissed, along with continuing negotiations with the Bahrain Government, in favour of proceeding to the company's contingency market - which was nominated through the export permit process - in Pakistan.

Mr Meerwald said Wellard was confident the sheep were healthy and this had been confirmed by independent tests in Bahrain.

He said Pakistani importer PK Livestock had an World Organisation for Animal Health-compliant abattoir built to Australian standards ready to take the sheep.

Wellard had helped to set the company up in Pakistan in 1996, providing some funding and expertise, and staff had maintained regular contact with the importer.

Mr Balzarini said Wellard had been working since April 2012 to get PK Livestock ESCAS-accredited and as recently as June this year had undertaken a GAP analysis to assess what further steps were needed to achieve this approval.

He stressed that ESCAS approval to take the sheep to Pakistan was not fast-tracked by the Australian government after the Ocean Drover left Bahrain and arrived in Pakistan a week later.

"Because we had started the process for ESCAS approval, the paperwork was all in order and we provided DAFF with a consolidated package of information," he said.

Between September 4 and 6 the Ocean Drover landed in Karachi, was cleared for unloading by Pakistani quarantine authorities and the sheep were discharged into PK Livestock's provisional quarantine facilities.

The Government's National Quarantine House was not big enough to take all of the sheep.

Local media reports then emerged that 'highly infectious' sheep from Australia had been rejected by Bahrain and were being 'dumped' in Pakistan.

Wellard said PK Livestock owner Tariq Mahmood Butt was aware the sheep had come from Bahrain and what had happened there, but that he knew the sheep had been inspected and were healthy.

Wellard said it was not its responsibility to deal with the importing country's government, so it did not advise Pakistani officials about the history of the voyage.

Mr Meerwald said the Pakistani Government would have known the sheep had come from Bahrain because of local media reports at the time. "Our obligation was to meet customs and the local importer and deliver the paperwork," he said.

What happened next in Pakistan has been well documented, with several testing processes clearing the sheep from a range of diseases, but a cull started on the order of the provincial Sindh Livestock Department.

Mr Meerwald said about 300 security forces ordered three Wellard and all PK Livestock staff out of the feedlot - at gunpoint - prior to the first cull of 7000-8000 sheep.

He said during the breaks in culling, which went for eight days, Wellard and PK Livestock staff were able to care for the remaining sheep sporadically and they remained healthy.

An injunction to stop the culling was granted but PK Livestock then withdrew its case against the Sindh Livestock Department.

There was some suggestion the company backed down under threat by authorities to demolish parts of its processing facilities.

In the Pakistani media, Tariq Butt said there had been a conspiracy by government officials that resulted in the cull of the healthy Australian sheep and cost him 100 million Pakistani rupees.

Mr Meerwald said through the judicial system it was stressed there was no pressure on PK Livestock to withdraw its application for an injunction to stop the cull of the sheep, but media reports indicated there were 'threats' against the company.

"Things were very tense in Pakistan at this time," he said.

"Pakistan was a tinder box of anti-western sentiment and the Wellard reps were given the option of temporarily flying out to protect their safety. But we opted to stay - in lock down and under heavy security at a Karachi hotel.

"We were very conscious of security and the risks we faced."

Mr Meerwald said the second and final cull of the sheep, although horrific, was more efficient than the first - taking only two days and undertaken by experienced butchering teams.

He said Wellard was appalled at what happened to the sheep in Pakistan and would not be exporting to that market, or Bahrain, as a result of what occurred.

Producer comment *

Woodanilling sheep producer Bindi Murray says it was distressing to watch the Four Corners report into the Pakistani sheep cull.

She said it was upsetting to see animals alive and suffering after supposedly being culled.

"I don't know anyone who would have responded to that in any other way," Mrs Murray said.

"I do have confidence in ESCAS and exporters.

"What was explained in the story and what happened with the sheep being hijacked was just such an unbelievable situation."

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