By Dr Kat Giles – Sheepmeat Council of Australia CEO
Dr Kat Giles (BVMS) is the Chief Executive Officer of the Sheepmeat Council of Australia. She is pictured at an ESCAS-approved sheep feedlot in Dubai in July.
THE logistics of Australia’s $230 million-plus annual live sheep trade to the Middle East are hard to fully appreciate until you’ve followed the supply chain through to the point of purchase in-market.
I was fortunate to gain such insight on a tour of Arabian Gulf markets in July as part of a Sheepmeat Council of Australia delegation.
Our time in the region preceded the busy Festival of the Sacrifice (Eid al-Adha) period, which will take place in the coming days and sees a huge spike in demand for live animals.
As sheep producers, we are aware that Eid puts live sheep supply chains under significant pressure and, as such, the risks of unacceptable animal welfare breaches and other Exporter Supply Chain Assurance System (ESCAS) non-compliance is increased.
Australian producers are proud of the role they play in servicing Middle East markets during the busy festival season, and throughout the year. But we also expect that our sheep are traded in secure supply chains which uphold full control, traceability and welfare standards.
While our time in the region was brief, the facilities we saw in the United Arab Emirates and Oman which are part of live Australian sheep supply chains were remarkable. Of course, we only saw a handful of ESCAS-approved facilities, so my evaluation of local supply chains is only based on our relatively quick snap-shot of the market. Nonetheless we were impressed with what we saw.
As a veterinarian and animal nutritionist, I was pleased to see first-hand the livestock systems in place at local feedlots and abattoirs that we visited.
The presentation of the Australian sheep we inspected told the story; the animals had full access to water, often chilled, and well rationed feed in clean, shaded, spacious pens which were fitted with fans for ventilation. It was very pleasing to see pens of content, well-cared for animals, with minimal health issues.
The abattoirs we visited promoted safety, hygiene and humane slaughter practices. Municipal slaughterhouses we saw in Dubai and Muscat were adjacent to sheep market areas and we observed how the tradition of a consumer selecting an animal for purchase can work operationally under ESCAS with the appropriate infrastructure investment.
Our time in the Gulf included a visit to Bahrain, which after importing 115,000 sheep in 2015-16, did not receive any live consignments in 2016-17. While the removal of domestic meat and livestock subsidies has meant trade with Bahrain is now dominated by frozen mutton carcases, we were hosted by feedlot owners and abattoir operators who are keen to resume live Australian sheep imports in the future.
Indeed, the market proposition in the Middle East isn’t a matter of importers choosing either live sheep or chilled and frozen sheepmeat. Different customers want different products and all segments of the export supply chain complement the others.
It might be easy to make generalisations about market demand in the Middle East, but it is abundantly clear that there remains significant, sustained and specific demand for live sheep.
It is testament to the quality of our sheep that customers remain committed to importing live from Australia, despite the potential to source cheaper stock from less rigorous exporting nations.
On top of a quality product, the strong relationships between Australian exporters and their customers also plays a crucial role in maintaining and strengthening supply chains. Relationships are a key pillar of all successful outcomes, particularly with regard to animal welfare, and the exporter/importer interaction we witnessed was a highlight of the delegation.
With this in mind, the Sheepmeat Council of Australia will continue to support industry efforts to expand the trade to new and pre-existing live sheep markets which uphold Australian livestock export welfare standards.
The re-opening of trade with Saudi Arabia, with demand for at least one million Australian sheep annually, would drive a 50 per cent increase in the total number of Australian sheep exported to the Middle East each year. This is an exciting market opportunity for Australia’s sheepmeat industry, but one which must be pursued in a way which embeds Australian welfare standards into any re-opened supply chains.
It is important that producers continue to be active stakeholders in the live sheep trade and collaborate with exporters at an industry level to promote long-term sustainability through ongoing market development and animal welfare research initiatives. Producers also expect that exporters and importers continue to implement changes which improve welfare outcomes in market.
Producers play an integral role, especially at culturally significant times such as Eid al-Adha, in delivering a world-class product to consumers in a way that combines long-standing cultural traditions with the highest control, traceability and welfare standards. It is something that the entire Australian sheep industry should be very proud of.
VIDEO: Middle East market snapshot with MLA’s David Beatty
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