Is livestock transport in need of a shake-up? CATHERINE GAFFANEY investigates the merit of suggested improvements to the industry.
When a concerned passenger took a photo of thin cattle aboard a Cook Strait ferry in March, public outcry ensued.
When New Zealand's largest ever shipment of livestock headed to Mexican shores in June, concerns were raised about the well-being of the 45,000 sheep and 3200 cattle on board.
And when, last week, a cow climbed over the barriers of a stock trailer and fell on to Auckland's Southern Motorway, spectators asked: how is it possible this can even happen?
Any farmer or transporter will tell you these incidents are few and far between.
In any case, Ministry of Primary Industries (MPI) investigators found no evidence of animal harm regarding the ferry cows, and says MPI, nothing unexpected happened in terms of the animals' health and welfare on the Mexico voyage -- 191 sheep (0.42 per cent of stock) and one cow (0.03 per cent) died on the trip.
MPI, Massey University senior veterinarian Alan Thatcher, Labour's Primary Industries spokesman, Damien O'Connor, and even SAFE's executive director, Hans Kriek, concur: the vast majority of farmers and trucking operators transport animals safely.
As Thatcher says, "The buyers and sellers have a vested interest in the stock so of course most do their best to ensure the stock arrive at their destination in good condition."
But does that mean there's no room for improvement?
When codes are broken
Between 2010 and 2014, MPI received 2947 complaints about welfare at commercial farms, lifestyle blocks, saleyards, transport carriers and other holders of farm animals.
Prosecutions followed just under 100 of the complaints, with thousands more resulting in verbal advice, education letters, written warnings, and other "investigation outcomes". Up to two outcomes could be recorded for one complaint.
Veterinarian Alan Thatcher believes there are times welfare codes are broken while transporting livestock -- with little consequence.
"Welfare can be an issue if there is no veterinary involvement," he says. "However, no one really knows because there's no auditing. If animals arrive at a freezing works in unsuitable condition then there may be consequences. Otherwise, unless someone notices something amiss (for example, poor condition cows being transported on the [ferry]) there is no comeback."
Thatcher, who specialises in pastoral animal health, says part of the problem is the lack of regulation.
"In the vast majority of cases of animal neglect there's ignorance but that's no excuse. You never hear of anyone being prosecuted for transporting stock that aren't in good condition because MPI has minimum powers for prosecution."
MPI refutes Thatcher's allegations, saying the transport industry is closely monitored along the transport chain.
"Transport operators are monitored at saleyards by MPI staff and all export livestock premises have MPI veterinarians monitoring the welfare of animals transported to slaughter.
"If there are significant breaches of the Animal Welfare Act 1999 related to the transport of animals these will result in a compliance response from MPI. This may include prosecutions of those persons identified as being in charge of the animals transported."
Ken Shirley, chief executive of the Road Transport Forum, which represents many rural transport operators, likewise says there's very close monitoring.
"We have a very active livestock safety section, which works with MPI, ACC and many in the transport industry. All our operators know that if the stock aren't fit for transport, it's simple: don't take them."
Labour's Damien O'Connor says there could always be more monitoring.
"Most drivers are very good at monitoring and sensing if something is wrong but, as we know in any part of our economy, there are rogues that might cut corners.
"The law as it stands is probably adequate to protect animals but its implementation requires proper enforcement."
Shorter the better
Thatcher says the distance stock are transported, especially very young animals such as bobby calves, is also worrying in terms of animal welfare.
"What's really dumb is that, for example, animals being transported from say Taranaki to a freezing works in Hawke's Bay may pass a truck taking identical animals from Hawke's Bay to a freezing works in Taranaki.
"This also has biosecurity implications. The last outbreak of foot and mouth in the United Kingdom was discovered in pigs at a slaughter facility -- those pigs had been transported some distance and there were consequent outbreaks along the route they took."
Ideally, animals would be carted the shortest possible distance, he says.
"It makes sense logistically and is much better for the animals' welfare, but if you can get another $50 for your animal in Hawke's Bay when you're in Taranaki, Manawatu or Northland, why wouldn't you?"
International transportation consultant GHD says there would be huge savings if NZ stock were processed closer to the farm they came from.
GHD estimates the average cost of carrying sheep and lambs to the nearest slaughterhouse to be $3.20 a head but, as around half of export kill go past the nearest plant, the average national cost of transport is about $5.50 a head. If half that stock were redirected to the nearest plant there would be immediate savings of $12 million.
Limiting how far animals can travel could be seen as anti-competitive, but Labour's Damien O'Connor says the GHD findings, which were reported by the Meat Industry Excellence group in March, show "pretty clear benefits".
"If better co-ordination within the meat industry were able to cut down some of the unnecessary transportation, it would not only benefit farmers but also benefit the animals."
However, Ken Shirley, of the Road Transport Forum, says a ban on how far stock can travel would be hard to prescribe.
"If you ban it, how do you ban it?
"As it stands, there's strict animal welfare requirements relating to distance including stopping if it's a particularly long journey, ensuring stock are watered and so on, so there shouldn't be more welfare concerns just because stock are going further."
Hide for cover
By law, the maximum height any vehicle on NZ roads can be is 4.25m, with another 25mm allowed for tarpaulins, lashings, straps, chains, covers and related connectors and tensioning devices that aren't permanently or rigidly fixed to the vehicle. If an animal sticks its head out the top of a truck the truck can thus be in breach of the law.
Putting covers on stock trucks isn't a legal requirement, and Associate Transport Minister Craig Foss said any changes would likely apply only to new vehicles.
Shirley says many transporters today have covers anyway.
"You can't go around legislating every single thing. If covers were made mandatory, there would probably be more instances of smothering and suffocation. I think in this case, the current best practice ethos is best."
But Hans Kriek, of SAFE, believes there's plenty grounds for continuing to push for change.
"There's a lot of common sense to fixing the issue of restraining animals," he says. "We only hear about the more spectacular cases like if a truck drives under a bridge on a busy road and the head of the animal gets taken off.
"It's hard to know how many instances of animals falling off or hurting themselves happen on rural roads because we don't hear anything about it.
"In any case, we shouldn't have the possibility of animals sticking heads out of trucks because it puts them at unnecessary risk."
The possibility of animals getting out is also really unsafe for road users, he says.
"If a vehicle had veered to avoid the cow that came off the truck [on Auckland's Southern Motorway] recently it could have crashed into another vehicle. There could have been six dead people on the road, not just a cow."
Federated Farmers were contacted for comment but hadn't replied in time for publication.
Did you know?
* Every truckload or shipment of livestock must be accompanied with an MPI certified animal status declaration form which includes details such as the name of the stock's owner, the address the stock was moved from, the number and type of stock, the stock history and feeding, vaccination and treatment information, and the stock's destination.
* The Police Commercial Vehicle Investigation Unit (CVIU) have a responsibility to carry out vehicle inspections at compliance stations and do roadside checks of loads to see they're correctly secured.