Live export: animals at risk in giant global industry | Environment


The global trade in live farm animals has more than quadrupled in size over the past 50 years, but patchy regulation means animals may be put at risk on some journeys, or exposed to cruelty when they reach their destination.

Every year nearly 2 billion farm animals are loaded on to trucks or ships and sent to new countries in journeys that can take days and sometimes weeks. Every day, at least 5 million animals are in transit.

As the trade has grown, profits have rocketed. In 1988, the global trade in all live animals was worth $716m (£548m); by 2017 that had risen to $21bn, according to Comtrade data. These figures do not take inflation into account, but the rise has massively outstripped inflation over that period.

Over the next week the Guardian’s Animals Farmed series will focus on the global live animal export trade, which, despite welfare and disease concerns, has quadrupled over the last fifty years.

Nearly 2 billion animals a year are loaded onto trucks or ships and sent off to new countries on journeys that can take weeks. 

Every day at least 5 million creatures are in transit, in a secretive global trade in live farm animals. 

And those numbers are just the cross-border journeys. They do not include long journeys within countries, which are becoming more frequent due to a trend that has seen smaller slaughterhouses close down.

We’re taking a moment to focus on some of the implications of this global trade. 

Rising demand for meat in many parts of the world has been a boon for exporters who specialise in breeding or in animals that need to be fattened before slaughter. In the Middle East, in particular, animal imports have risen markedly: in 2016, Saudi Arabia alone imported nearly $1bn worth of live animals. Hong Kong’s reliance on importing animals from China has fuelled fears of greater dependence on the mainland.

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In turn, other countries rely on selling their farm animals overseas. Romania, for example, exports more than 2 million sheep a year. Sudan’s trade with Saudi Arabia – where it sends several million sheep annually – is one of its most important sectors. Australia, Denmark and Spain also have thriving export industries.

But the steadily growing trade has led to concerns about the lack of oversight of animals in transit and when they reach their destination. Poor conditions during transportation and inhumane slaughter on arrival are two issues raised by animal charities that are calling for better regulation of the industry. There are also fears about the spread of disease.

Investigations by officials and campaigners have highlighted problems at ports and borders where animals are left in hot vehicles, before being loaded on ships where there may not always be access to a vet.

Abuse or bad animal practices, such as cutting the tendons in a cow’s legs in order to stop it moving before slaughter, or repeatedly stabbing into the side of the neck in order to kill, have been exposed in a number of slaughterhouses in Egypt, Lebanon and Saudi Arabia. NGO Eyes on Animals now works in slaughterhouses in Turkey in order to improve conditions.

On top of this the Guardian has found that the ships licensed to carry animals are often old and dilapidated. In November a ship capsized just off the coast of Romania. More than 14,000 sheep drowned, although the crew were rescued.

Livestock vessel Queen Hind carrying 14,600 sheep overtruns off Romania



Livestock vessel the Queen Hind overturned carrying 14,600 sheep off the coast of Romania. Photograph: Animals International

The consolidation of the slaughterhouse industry has led to additional problems. The US, UK and France have all recorded fewer, larger meat plants, meaning animals must travel longer distances, and even into other countries, for processing. There is no cross-Europe data, but industry insiders say the trend is similar.

The World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE) is the agency responsible for setting standards on public and animal health, and has a role in creating rules for animal welfare. But it is not responsible for ensuring that these rules are adhered to or for punishing anyone who transgresses – that is still down to individual governments.

Dr Matthew Stone, a deputy director-general of the World Organisation for Animal Health, said the group worked with its members and partners to define international standards and strategies for animal welfare and develop the capacity of veterinary services to implement those standards. “Our members have not given us the mandate to enforce compliance with our international standards – that remains the sovereign responsibility of each member country,” he said.

“Our standards and strategies for animal welfare promote implementation of bilateral agreements for trade in live animals that address contingency arrangements during transport, such as mechanical failure or adverse weather events, and importantly in the context of international trade, contingencies for disease outbreaks or health events.

“In such circumstances, our standards describe the responsibility to care for the sick animals, and if unloading at the port of destination is in their best interests, to facilitate quarantine, investigation, and decisions on the fate of the consignment. Humane treatment of animals remains an important consideration throughout the entire journey.”

After a series of crises, the governments of New Zealand and Australia took action to restrict live exports from their countries and increase monitoring of animals in transit. But other countries apply different rules, and the oversight of the regulations that do exist is patchy.

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The European Union has a set of regulations that cover live animal transport within the boundaries, and are supposed to cover them beyond. But although EU laws stipulate that exporters must be confident that standards will be met beyond the border, in practice this is difficult to ensure.

Peter Stevenson, chief policy adviser of campaign group Compassion in World Farming, said: “We’ve told the EU they should not be sending animals to places where this is happening.

“There are international laws on animal welfare at slaughter set by the World Organisation for Animal Health, and we should not be sending animals to places where we know they are being broken,” he said.

“Some of this is just habit. If the will was there for the EU to say – probably working with Australia – that there could be no more live exports, then it could be done.”

He said that the slaughterhouses he had seen in the Middle East were the worst he had seen.

In the UK, the new Conservative government’s election manifesto committed to ending “excessively long journeys for slaughter and fattening”.

Stevenson said: “The OIE should be doing much more to help its member countries to implement its standards on welfare during transport and slaughter. Many OIE member countries simply don’t know where to begin when it comes to implementing the OIE standards on welfare at slaughter.”

He said: “I don’t think a global body would really help with enforcement. We simply need the European Commission and other countries to enforce regulations rigorously.”

Reineke Hameleers, director of the lobbying group Eurogroup for Animals, said: “The EU needs to enforce the transport regulation until the destination in the third country. However, in practice this is very hard because the EU relies on working with many different third countries where no enforcement infrastructure is in place. Also, once the animals have arrived there is no way to ensure their welfare during transport and slaughter.”

“The existing legislation is not up to date, unenforceable and out of step with societal demands. There’s barely any legislation on transport by sea, and once the animals are outside the EU, there is no way of even monitoring standards, let alone enforcing them – and this goes for slaughter as well as transport.”

The group is calling for a total ban on live exports, and limits on journey times within countries.

Anti- live export protestors march in Adelaide.



Anti- live export protestors march in Adelaide. Photograph: Kelly Barnes/AAP

But Rupert Claxton of international food consultancy Gira, said that in almost all cases great care was taken with the animals when transporting them. “In the most basic terms, it doesn’t make sense not to take care of them,” he told the Guardian. “Commercially, exporters need the animals to be fit and well.” He said that the industry was always looking for ways to improve or reduce transit, but that, in Europe in particular, the growing distances between slaughterhouses made some travel unavoidable.

“Mostly exporters are good,” said vet Paul Roger, chair of the UK-based Animal Welfare Science, Ethics and Law Veterinary Association. “But the emphasis is on profitable trade rather than welfare aims. An example might be the live export of sheep to the Middle East, and of recorded journey times being exceeded in the EU. I think we need to reassess what we permit and why we permit this trade.”



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