People must come first in red meat debate

Opinion | People must come first in red meat debate


Farm Online News
Don Mackay, RMAC Independent Chair.

Don Mackay, RMAC Independent Chair.

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Don Mackay says the red meat industry needs a national network of Safer Farms Commissioners to evaluate the rising incidence of attacks on food businesses across Australia.

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When we talk about regional and rural crime for the Australian red meat and livestock industry this conjures up images of cattle rustling; and when we talk about safety, we think about farm injury and OHS protocols for those working in butchers, retailers, manufacturers, lot feeders and farms across the country.

What we don't think about is trespass and home invasion; which is precisely the crime that is on the rise for Australia's rural and regional workforce, particularly the red meat industry.

The disturbing invasion of the Lemon Tree Feedlot in Queensland recently by around 150 extremists showed the complete lack of enforcement powers by the Queensland Police Service.

This is not a new incident and will not be the last and similar incursions have too been experienced by farms and processing facilities across the country. Just this morning, extremists invaded a facility in Yangan, Queensland with several other southern plants also understood to be targeted.

Read more: Abattoirs invaded in day of animal activist protests

In these situations, our number one priority will always be to protect the welfare of our employees, family members and animals within our businesses.

Our employees are the lifeblood of our industry totalling 438,000 Australians - 191, 000 direct Australian workers and 246,300 indirect.

Industry is and will remain unapologetic about keeping these people safe, and it is fair that we in turn expect governments to step up and provide support.

New South Wales has led the charge committing to an Agricultural Commissioner and exploring options for right to farm for the 21,564 red meat and livestock businesses that make up for 26 percent of all red meat and livestock businesses in Australia.

This is a good start from our largest red meat state and will be delivered by the newly re-elected Berejiklian-Barilaro Government, but all of our State and Territory Parliaments, regulators and enforcers need to go further and deeper.

This weekend's announcement by Queensland's Minister for Agricultural Industry Development the Hon Mark Furner is equally welcomed with bigger on the spot fines and a joint Agriculture-Police taskforce that recognises and seeks to prevent illegal and dangerous behaviour.

Invasions of this kind risk human safety and are extremely traumatic, but also severely compromise animal welfare and breach strict biosecurity protocols. This disruption is counter purpose to the agenda the extremists are supposedly seeking to achieve.

These invasions affect criminal codes, biosecurity laws and the laws governing animal welfare within our care, creating a cross-portfolio, multi-regulatory job that needs to examine the law enforcing and the law-making arms of State Governments.

But as we know from other activities (look only at our road safety rules if you need an example), penalties are not necessarily a deterrent to committing a crime and we need to cast our net wider.

What are the solutions? 

We need to understand the motivations and drivers behind these extremist actions and attempt to engage them in a respectful way that does not compromise safety.

We need to investigate options to look at a national network of Safer Farms Commissioners who, supported by community and business advisory groups, evaluate the rising incidence of attacks on food businesses across Australia, and provide balanced, sensitive recommendations to improve the safety of red meat workers and the animals within their care.

We need better data on the scale of incidents Australia wide, their prosecution rate and how this can be prevented with better surveillance and intervention; with a continued focus and 'true north' on how we can continue to create a safe environment for people and animals on Australian farm businesses.

We also recognise a 'shut the gate' mentality will not address this issue.

Trust is absolutely fundamental in food production and we need to actively work to keep the trust of customers, community and decision makers. Trust is also a two-way street; and without trust there will not be a shared understanding or appreciation of our food story or the role of food producers.

Home invasion and invasion of businesses will continue to erode this two-way trust unless we all work together to counter it in a meaningful way like the Queensland Government has done. We welcome constructive discussions and would encourage groups to reach out in a respectful and thoughtful way.

But there are some basic assumptions when we look into the future as an Australian community.

One is that people need jobs; and the other is that people will need nutritious food.

Governments and communities alike - and that includes red meat businesses - need to step and deliver on the promise of safety for our food future; and our workers.

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