State Comptroller pans Agriculture Ministry over cruel live shipments of animals

Ministry fails to investigate problems, punishes neither ship owners nor importers who repeatedly break rules. More work needed to halt spread of diseases that can infect humans

Sue Surkes is The Times of Israel's environment reporter.

Screenshot from Australian TV's "60 Minutes" broadcast about live shipments, "Sheep, Ships and Videotape," shown April 8, 2018.
Screenshot from Australian TV's "60 Minutes" broadcast about live shipments, "Sheep, Ships and Videotape," shown April 8, 2018.

A State Comptroller’s report issued Monday on the import of calves and lambs to Israel for fattening and slaughter confirms the numerous testimonies that have piled up over recent years about the cruelty of the live shipments.

Ships are often in poor condition, suffering from insufficient ventilation, high temperatures and humidity; animals are forced to live in their own excrement; wet bedding is not changed often enough; food and water is often lacking; and the air is thick with the smell of ammonia from urine which causes the animals breathing difficulties and sore eyes. Yet next to nothing is done to ensure that complaints are followed up, conditions improve and regulations are adhered to, the report says.

Furthermore, not enough is being done to monitor, deal with and develop new plans to limit the spread of diseases that can jump from livestock to infect humans.

The animal welfare organization Animals Now (formerly Anonymous for Animal Rights), said in a statement Monday that “years of lawlessness have proven beyond any doubt that the Agriculture Ministry has monumentally failed in its supervision.” Animal abuse was inherent in these long journeys, it said, and there was no way to transport animals in this way without causing them acute suffering.

A wet animal enclosure on a ship carrying sheep and calves for slaughter in Israel, shown at a closed workshop in Europe in mid-June 2019 by an Israeli vet working for the agriculture ministry. The vet’s presentation was leaked to Animals Now (formerly Anonymous for Animal Rights), June 24, 2019.

The State Comptroller’s office probed aspects of the Agriculture Ministry supervision between February and August last year.

Vessels used to bring livestock to Israel were often in a “poor state of maintenance” to the extent that they create “real dangers for the animals and harm to their living conditions in a fashion that causes them great suffering,” the report, available only in Hebrew, said.

Staff from the State Comptroller’s office reviewed 48 out of 180 forms filled out  by ministry supervisors from early 2018 to mid-2019 in which failings on ships were documented.

Some 44% of these forms described poor conditions on the ships, with animals covered in their own feces. Around 42% of them described wet bedding that was not changed as often as necessary and containers for food and water that were empty. A third of the forms included descriptions of a strong smell of ammonia from animal urine and 29% described high temperatures and humidity because of ventilation problems. A small number of cases — 4% of forms — documented the use of electric shockers and other forms of direct animal abuse.

One vet at a port testified that complaints sent to the ministry’s Central Unit for Enforcement and Investigations “got nowhere” and that investigators only turned up when they “had time.” The vet supervised the start of the unloading of animals but after that, unloading continued without the presence of any ministry employees.

Footage posted by the Israel Against Live Shipments animal rights group on June 13 shows what the group says are workers beating and shocking cow with electric prodders as they disembark from an Australian ship in Eilat. (Facebook screenshot)

“In recent years, the Agriculture Ministry has not imposed sanctions on importers or ship owners that did not follow the ministry’s instructions,” the report said.

“The ministry did not impose fines, did not call people for hearings, and did not cancel the licenses of importers that failed to fulfill the transport requirements that had been laid down.”

The report continued, “Despite the ministry’s response, according to which sanctions were imposed on importers and ship owners, it was found that during 2018, only two requests for investigations were made to the ministry’s legal department… and that in 2019, only two additional investigations were opened but that by January 2020, they had not yet been transferred to the legal department.

“Given the fact that there are still importers and ship owners who, time after time, fail to follow the ministry’s instructions for livestock transport, the ministry should, through its import-export unit, consider the best way is to enforce the law and reduce the harm to animal welfare during transportation.”

The report also highlighted the failures of the veterinary service to monitor, deal with and develop new plans to limit the spread of diseases such as bovine brucellosis and leptospirosis, both of which are able to jump from livestock to infect humans.

Screenshot from Australian TV’s “60 Minutes” broadcast about live shipments, “Sheep, Ships and Videotape,” shown April 8, 2018.

Not only did the veterinary service instruct farmers to vaccinate animals when the market was short of the vaccines, it also failed to conduct organized visits to countries that supply the animals to check that health requirements were being fulfilled. The data indicated that these requirements were not being met, the report said.

“In light of the dangers posed by imported livestock to public health in Israel and to local animals, and the exposure of Israel to diseases not common in the region, the veterinary service must carry out a precise examination and risk assessment in the case of every country [permitted to export livestock to Israel],” the report said.

On the positive side, it noted a “significant improvement” in the number of people infected with brucellosis and said 2019 figures were expected to be much better than those for previous years. It credited this to ministry efforts to improve the safety of Israeli farmers.

The report further found that no checks were carried out on imported fodder, raising fears that traces of metals, pesticides, molds and toxins could enter the food supply of the animals and later the humans that consume their meat.

A calf exhausted from a shipment from Australia to Eilat, December 2019. (Israel Against Live Shipments)

A record-breaking 691,327 live lambs and calves were transported to Israel for fattening and slaughter last year, marking an increase of 5,514 over the number of animals that arrived in the country on live shipments in 2018 and continuing a trend of annual increases in live imports (with the exception of 2017, which saw a slight dip).

Numerous reports of animal abuse connected with the live shipment industry have emerged in recent years. Last June, the same “common problems” pointed out in Monday’s report were detailed by Dr. Lauren Stein, a veterinary inspector in the ministry’s import and export department, during a closed workshop held in Romania.

Calves on a live shipment from Australia to Eilat for fattening, prior to slaughter, December 2019. (Israel Against Live Shipments)

Last year, according to the State Comptroller’s report, a third of imported cattle and 16% of lambs came from Australia, with a quarter of calves and over 70% of lambs coming from Portugal.

In November 2018, just weeks before the Knesset was dissolved for the first of three elections, MKs green-lighted a bill in its preliminary reading to stop the live transports. The bill, which could not proceed further because Israel has since been without a fully functioning government, sought to gradually reduce livestock numbers being imported into Israel and to stop them completely within three years, moving entirely to the import of chilled meat.

State Comptroller Matanyahu Englman holds the 2020 State Comptroller’s Report in his office on March 23, 2020. (Tadmeet)

In its recommendations, the report said that the veterinary service should move “immediately” to a computerized system of country permits that makes both the stages of the process and the forms filled out on the living conditions of animals during transport transparent and accessible to the public “to allow appropriate, ongoing oversight of the issue and to prevent repeated violations of its instructions.”

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