Trade in limbo

Melissa Williams and AAPCountryman

The fate of an estimated 11,500 head of Australian sheep that landed in a Pakistani feedlot after being rejected by Bahrain last month because of claims of scabby mouth remains uncertain.

And debate in Australia continues to rage about whether the animals are healthy, who was responsible for the cull and method of slaughter of 5000 to 8000 head of this consignment - sold by Wellard to Pakistani importer PK Livestock - and whether this latest incident will signal the end of the live export trade from this country.

There are also questions being raised about the ability of live exporting companies to maintain control of livestock right through the supply chain, as required under the new Exporter Supply Chain Assurance System (ESCAS) to ensure animal welfare outcomes.

Federal Agriculture Minister Joe Ludwig said in this latest, unprecedented, incident in Pakistan, Wellard had lost control.

Does this mean the ESCAS system is fatally flawed and cannot work?

Mr Ludwig said in this instance where control in the supply chain was lost, the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry (DAFF) would work with the exporter and importer and investigate all of the circumstances.

"And there is a compliance framework in place to make sure it does not happen again," he told the ABC this week.

"The regulator (DAFF) is best placed to make judgments about breaches. If there were breaches of the control, then the regulator will determine what action it will take."

Senator Ludwig said through its investigation, DAFF would consider putting in place systems to ensure this type of incident did not occur again.

"I'm pretty confident that they're not going to be sending sheep to Pakistan for some time," he said.

DAFF and the High Commission in Pakistan have been trying to resolve the issues of the sheep consignment being held in a feedlot in Karachi for the past few weeks.

Late last week, the High Court of Sindh in Pakistan adjourned and delayed its decision on an application by PK Livestock to overturn a cull order from the Sindh Livestock Department.

DAFF said the delay was to allow further testing and diagnostic analysis to be undertaken by an independent international laboratory to confirm the animals' disease-free status.

Samples for the new tests were understood to have been taken in the presence of Australian experts.

DAFF said the High Court of Sindh also ordered that PK Livestock continue to have access to the sheep to supply feed, water and any necessary veterinary medicines.

This would be undertaken with assistance from Wellard, which has been conducting regular inspections of the sheep.

"Wellard reports that the sheep are in good condition, have access to feed and water and display no signs of disease," a DAFF statement said.

It is understood the High Court of Sindh plans to reconvene to decide the fate of the sheep on October 17 but this could be sooner depending on the timing of the results.

Australian authorities have insisted all along that the sheep are disease-free and that salmonella and actinomyces, reportedly found in initial testing by Pakistani authorities, were part of normal bacteria found in sheep and posed no threat to human health.

The Pakistan ESCAS breach has renewed calls by the Australian Greens for an end to Australia's live export trade, which is worth about $US1 billion a year and employs about 10,000 people.

"The Australian Government and export company Wellard have lost total control over the supply chain and animals have suffered terribly as a result," Greens animal welfare spokeswoman Senator Lee Rhiannon said.

ALP member for the NSW electorate of Page, Janelle Saffin, told ABC Radio last week that she would argue for a live export ban when the Labor party room met next week and she believed she had the support of many of her colleagues.

ALP member for Wills, Kelvin Thompson, has also been outspoken on live exports.

Senator Ludwig said in the caucus there were always individuals who were opposed to the live export trade but he continued to argue that it was a good industry with a bright future.

He said he would talk to his backbench about the issue and try to garner their support for measures to continually improve the trade.

Animals Australia campaign director Lyn White said the sheep slaughter in Pakistan was unforgivable.

"Events in the Middle East in the past month prove exported animals face unacceptable risks," she said.

Sheepmeat Council of Australia (SCA) chief executive Ron Cullen, who was in WA last week, said council members and members of the Australian Livestock Exporters Association planned to visit the Middle East in mid-October to meet government officials in a range of markets and highlight the importance of the continuation of the live export trade.

"We know the importance of the live trade to Australia - the WA sheep industry in particular - and SCA will continue to work for the long term-future of the trade," he said.

Mr Cullen said SCA had been involved in 'behind the scenes' discussions with the Federal Government, DAFF and industry bodies during the recent weeks of turmoil in the live export trade to the Middle East.

He said it was pleasing to see three export permits approved last week by DAFF but the regulator had become more cautious and that situation was unlikely to ease in the near future.

"We need to see these latest three shipments unload and get the system up and going again," he said.

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