FEDERAL Agriculture Minister Barnaby Joyce is pushing to reopen live export with Saudi Arabia, saying the live sheep trade could be worth in excess of $100 million annually to Australia’s economy.
However, Saudi Arabia’s refusal to comply with the Australian government's Exporter Supply Chain Assurance System (ESCAS) is likely to engender further controversy in the livestock industry.
In August 2003 a shipload of 57,937 sheep bound for Saudi Arabia was rejected because importing authorities claimed that 6 per cent were infected with ‘scabby mouth’. By the time the Cormo Express was finally unloaded in Eritrea, 5691 sheep had died. The Australian government then suspended live exports to Saudi Arabia but resumed them in 2005.
Saudi Arabia has not taken live animals from Australia since ESCAS was introduced in 2011, taking Australian meat instead and sourcing live sheep from other markets.
The Saudis have complained ESCAS regulations “compromise their sovereignty”, Mr Joyce told ABC radio this morning.
Saudi Arabia was once one of Australia's biggest markets, but cheaper competition from markets such as Africa and Pakistan have replaced the Australian industry.
“They are getting sheep at the moment - it's not as if they're not eating sheep, it's just that they're not eating ours.
"I will be doing everything in my endeavours to see if there is a place where we can both land, where both sides are happy ... and we can get the trade going again," Mr Joyce said.
"I think it is a bit of a statement to say that the home of the Islamic faith, which is Saudi Arabia, are not capable of the humane treatment of animals."
Australia is not the only country that has animal husbandry standards, Mr Joyce said. “Other countries have them, and if other countries and can apply them, then the objective which is to minimise animal cruelty is obviously there.”
ESCAS is set to be reviewed with a report due in July. The system has been criticised by some industry members who claim it imposes unnecessary costs on exporters without improving animal welfare standards, preventing exports to key sheep and cattle markets.
"Saudi Arabia still doesn't agree with the extent that the ESCAS system goes to," Mr Joyce told Fairfax after returning from a flying visit to the Arab nation and Bahrain earlier this month.
"They say it's an intrusion on their sovereignty, and we had discussions about how we deal with that issue," he said.
"I don't want to say that we're going to get rid of ESCAS, but we have to try and work out whether we can get something to work in a form equivalent to ESCAS, but not so that it intrudes on another nation's sovereignty.
"We recognise where our limits are when it comes to Saudi Arabia."
- More to come