Livestock exporters meeting for a national conference in Townsville tomorrow will debate whether to introduce an industry-driven quality assurance program for animal welfare.
Under the compulsory Exporter Supply Chain Assurance System (ESCAS) introduced in 2011, exporters must meet Australian Government approved welfare standards throughout their supply chains in areas such as staff training, animal handling, independent auditing, record keeping and round-the-clock traceability.
The ESCAS regulatory framework is designed to provide an assurance that Australian animals are being treated humanely in foreign markets, but also involves a high degree of duplication and cost that exporters see as inefficient and unnecessary.
Many exporters also go ‘above and beyond’ the standard requirements of ESCAS and some see an industry driven QA system, or “ESCAS Plus”, as the most effective way to demonstrate that.
In October last year the Australian Livestock Exporters Council, Meat & Livestock Australia and LiveCorp commissioned the Schuster Consulting Group to investigate the potential to develop an industry-driven risk management and quality assurance program to complement ESCAS.
In preparing their report the consultants analysed the strengths and weaknesses of ESCAS, the costs of achieving ESCAS compliance, and QA programs in use in other industries.
The report recommended that an independent, third-party certified QA program to complement ESCAS be adopted to support the industry’s ongoing efforts to achieve best practice in animal welfare standards.
Since the report’s release to stakeholders, MLA, Livecorp and the consultants have conducted consultations with industry which has indicated that qualified support exists at industry level for the development of such a program.
The main qualification expressed has been that ‘significant concessions’ must be delivered by the Australian Government through the ESCAS regulatory framework in recognition of the investment in time and resources that the implementation of QA would require. Without such concessions, investment in a program should not proceed, the industry members indicated.
QA program preferences expressed by exporters included support for a node-based, as opposed to a supply chain-based, program, and that non-conformances be dealt with within the QA program, and should not constitute non-compliances and thus be open to Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry sanction.
The report has recommended that conformance with the initial program, if adopted, would mean compliance with ESCAS, and that over time the program should aspire to replace ESCAS in its current form and not operate in parallel to ESCAS indefinitely.
The report has been circulated to exporters for consideration ahead of tomorrow’s ALEC-members only meeting in Townsville, where it is expected to be a hot topic of debate.
Peter Schuster from Shuster Consulting Group who prepared the report will also provide a presentation to the Livexchange Conference in Townsville on Thursday under the title: "Is QA the future for the industry?".
Strong levels of support throughout the livestock export industry, and an ability to demonstrate that a program would lose none of the levels of oversight and compliance of ESCAS and would be positive for the improvement of animal welfare, will be vital pre-requisites for the concept to secure the support at Government level it would ultimately requite to succeed.