THE largest importer of Australian live sheep has revealed his company is looking to find other secure sources of livestock as a result of Australia’s talk of banning the trade.
Osama Boodai, chief executive officer of Al Mawashi in Kuwait, said the livestock trade was a matter of national food security in his country.
He has spoken candidly about the issues being hotly debated in Australia, providing extensive explanation around why the trade can not simply be replaced with boxed meat and Muslim cultural beliefs on animal slaughter.
In what will likely contradict the views of many Australians who believe their animal welfare beliefs superior, he says many customers in his country do not believe it is good welfare to use a stunner device on an animal and then slaughter it.
Mr Boodai is emphatic those on the Middle Eastern side of the trade were also outraged at the footage on board sheep ships, saying “those conditions were not acceptable to any of us.”
However, to ignore other evidence of what a livestock journey normally looks like means “people are judging us without having all the facts in front of them,” he said.
Mr Boodai has just visited Australia to talk to politicians and farmers about the reality of conditions on livestock vessels.
Al Mawashi, which incorporates the Kuwait Livestock Transport and Trading, is a majority government-owned business focused on food security rather than maximising profits, he explained.
It was subsidised by the Kuwait Government until it became self-sustaining and has been importing Australian sheep for four decades.
“Kuwait is not an agricultural region but given we sense the threat to livestock imports, we have started building our own flock and are hoping to increase its capacity,” he said.
“However, there are real limitations to our production potential and ability to ever be self-sufficient. That’s why for countries in the Gulf, the livestock trade is a matter of national food security.”
Mr Boodai spoke about his company’s investments in the supply chain and how seriously it takes animal welfare.
Those investments include the world’s biggest covered feedlot, a new $70 million closed-loop abattoir in Kuwait and a new $110m livestock vessel due to be launched in 2019.
“Our company’s farms, feedlots, vessels, livestock trucks, fodder infrastructure and abattoirs are all geared for imported live animals,” he said.
“We always need to manage the risks associated with unpredictable weather, especially in the Arabian Gulf, but our record shows we have the planning in place to maintain animal welfare all year.
“Al Mawashi has upgraded its ventilation systems on its two vessels, the Al Messilah and Al Shuwiakh, not because we’ve been forced to but because investing in the health of the sheep is good for business.”
In the past five years, Al Mawashi has conducted 78 voyages from Australia to the Arabian Gulf on its own vessels with an average mortality rate of less than 0.6 per cent.
On the issue of replacing live sheep with boxed meat, Mr Boodai said his company already imported large volumes of chilled and frozen Australian meat.
These have different markets and will never replace the livestock trade, he said.
Live, frozen and chilled all support food security as a whole, but one does not replace the other, he said.
“A clear example of this is what we have seen in Saudi Arabia, which ceased importing Australian sheep in 2012,” he said.
“Anyone who argued Saudi Arabia would simply start importing chilled or frozen sheepmeat instead of live sheep has been proven wrong, because the Saudis continue to source millions of livestock each year from other regions like the Horn of Africa. Their demand, like ours, is specifically for live sheep.”
Muslim customers in Kuwait and elsewhere in the Middle East have strong religious and cultural beliefs in terms of animal welfare and how an animal should be humanely slaughtered, he said.
“We believe that by applying a single swift cut with a sharp knife to the sheep’s neck, the animal loses all senses very rapidly.
“We do not believe it is acceptable to torture the animal before it is slaughtered.
“Many customers do not believe it is good welfare to use a stunner device on an animal and then slaughter it. That is why they will not accept Australian pre-stunned sheep meat, even if it is marketed as Halal.”
Asia makes live cattle a different story
FORMER Australian trade minister, S Kidman and Co board member and experienced live trade commentator Andrew Robb says there are some key differences between the live sheep and live cattle trades.
The sheep trade will decrease over time, he believes.
“The Middle East is where our markets are and there are all sort of issues dictating that market - religious, infrastructure, refrigeration,” he said in panel session dominated by talk of the live sheep trade at the big Beef Australia event in Rockhampton this month.
“Live cattle are in a totally different situation.
“Hundreds of millions is being spent on cattle transport - there are some unbelievable boats.
“Cattle are putting on weight on the trip and you don’t get stressed animals putting on weight.”
What the discussion has ignored so far is the fact this century for Australia is all about Asia, he said.
“We can see what’s happening as China moves into a middle class dominance and we also have 600m people in the region around us who are not in China.
“India and China are re-emerging to where they were for 18 of the last 20 centuries as the centre of global and political gravity.
“The implications of that for us is enormous.”
While the trade of sheep to the Middle East has issues, cattle to Asia is “a very neat fit with fast-growing needs for fresh meat,” he said.
“They want our premium, A-quality beef and often they want it fresh, not chilled or frozen,” he said.
Outspoken radio and television commentator Peter Fitzsimons spoke on the same panel.
He believes the right answer for the live sheep industry with regards to the recent horror footage was “for you to outdo we inner city latte-sipping lefties with your outrage that this is not representative of you.”
The industry had to demand “the bastards who are doing this are isolated, say ‘that is not us, we will find these people and never work with them again’,” he said.
Social and consumer trend expert Neer Korn said animal welfare was an issue the Australian public was very sensitive to.
“It’s almost like they’ve given up on people,” he said.
There was a high chance this latest shock footage could spin out into boycotts of red meat on home soil, he said.
“Nobody buys tuna anymore if it doesn’t say dolphin-free, even though when you ask people they don’t know what dolphin-free means,” he said.
“And the classic one is free range eggs. It has become shameful to pick up a boxed of caged eggs because the person in the queue behind you will be thinking you are a cruel bastard.
“To battle this, the live ex industry has to convince people that this (footage) really is an aberration.”