Educational Series: End the Horrors of Live Animal Exports

By Nick Engelfried
Hundreds of terrified sheep are herded onto a ship chartered for a distant port. During the next few weeks, the animals will live in cramped, filthy conditions surrounded by their own feces while enduring massive temperature swings as the weather varies from suffocatingly hot to freezing cold. Many individuals will perish from exposure, disease, or starvation caused by lack of access to natural foods during the journey. Those animals who survive transport across the ocean will be loaded into trucks on which they will endure another grueling journey to the slaughterhouse, where they will finally be killed for meat. A fate like this awaits countless millions of living creatures caught up in the cruel live exports industry.

Every day, an estimated five million animals languish in conditions similar to those described above, held prisoner in ships or trucks while being transported from one country to another. The business of shipping live cows, pigs, sheep, and other livestock over international boundaries–and often across oceans–is a highly profitable one, worth over $800 million per year in Australia alone. Yet, while meat producers rake in millions, countless animals are left to suffer and die under horrific conditions.

While animals endure cruelty at every stage of industrial meat production, the live exports industry is known for especially flagrant abuses. Animals en route from one country to another spend long periods of time packed tightly into trucks or boats where they may be subjected to extreme heat or cold or left without adequate food and water for days–or even weeks. Safety standards for the animals are generally weak and difficult to enforce, meaning many helpless victims die unnecessarily. For example, in November 2019 a ship carrying over 14,000 sheep capsized while on its way from Romania to Saudi Arabia. The entire human crew fortunately survived, but almost all the animals on board drowned in what was likely a preventable accident.

Despite such tragedies, and the well-documented cruelties rampant in the live exports industry, the number of animals shipped across international borders has actually gone up dramatically in recent years. In fact, according to the UK Guardian, it nearly doubled over the course of just one decade, from one billion in 2007 to 1.9 billion in 2017. Understanding the reasons behind this trend–and the challenges involved in reversing it–requires taking a bird’s eye look at the global meat industry.

Worldwide, demand for meat has grown at an alarming rate over the last couple of decades. Meat consumption rose 58% between 1998 and 2018, a massive increase resulting partly from human population growth and partly from rising levels of per-capita consumption, especially in developing nations. Yet, while the uptick in meat eating since the beginning of this century is most notable in developing economies, this is partly due to the fact that industrialized countries like the US already had such high rates of consumption to begin with. In 2020, the United States accounted for far more beef consumption than any other country, about 21% of the global total (China, the next biggest consumer, was responsible for approximately 16%).

In fact, a major driver of the meat consumption juggernaut has been the trend toward countries adopting a more US-style diet as more people are raised out of poverty–and this has led to high demand for products like beef and pork in parts of the world where these foods were once relatively rare. This in turn has raised the incentive for livestock growers in places like Europe and Australia to make a profit by shipping animals overseas for processing. The result has been a boom in the live exports industry.

The challenge of reversing the trend toward more live animal exports is a daunting one–but fortunately, animal welfare groups have pushed back, winning important victories in some countries. Last year, Germany announced it would extend an existing law that banned the export of animals used for slaughter or fattening to countries outside the EU. The law will now also cover livestock exported for breeding purposes, meaning that at least in theory, no more German animals will be sent overseas to countries whose cruelty regulations are even more lax than in the EU. Meanwhile, in 2021 the UK unveiled a complete ban on animal exports, including to the European mainland.

Yet, curbing the live exports industry in a major way will require that more countries–as well as blocks of countries like the EU–get on board. Currently, animals transported from Germany to another EU country can still be shipped overseas, a fatal loophole that would end if EU leaders heeded animal rights activists’ call for a complete ban on exports to destinations outside the union. Other important live animal exporters, like Australia, currently lack any meaningful regulations to curb the industry.

Much of the attention to live exports has focused on Australia and Europe, where growers send livestock hundreds of miles by ship to be processed in places like the Middle East and North Africa. The long overseas routes between these locations are among the most dangerous for animals, both because of the brutal conditions on board ships and the length of time it takes to complete the journey. However, other countries that have received less attention for their involvement in the export industry–including the United State–also deserve scrutiny.

According to the Animal Welfare Institute (AWI), the US exported over two million live animals outside its national borders during a five-year period last decade. Of these, over half a million were transported by sea or air to countries like Russia, Turkey, the United Arab Emirates, and China. The US thus must be seen as a major player in this cruel industry, and groups including the AWI successfully pushed the USDA to ban the export of animals that are unfit to travel because they are young, weak, or sick. The existing Federal Meat Inspection Act gave the USDA authority to take this action, but a broader ban on overseas animal exports in the US may require new legislation from Congress.

Ultimately, no one country can end the live export industry on its own, but every part of the world now involved in the cruel trade can play a part. This means that animal advocates all over the planet can participate in the solution by pushing their governments to stop exporting or importing livestock. With enough public pressure on policymakers, we can one day see a time when no animals are forced to endure horrific conditions while being transported overseas to slaughter.

Photo credit: Nom d’util

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Which of these animal species are commonly exported overseas?
In 2019, thousands of sheep drowned when a ship capsized after departing from which country?
About how many animals were exported worldwide in 2017?
Which country is the largest consumer of beef?
True or false: The Federal Meat Inspection Act gives the USDA a limited ability to regulate live animal exports
What is a common destination for live animals exported from Australia?
Which of these countries recently banned live animal exports?

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Nick Engelfried Writes About Animals, the Environment, and Conservation for the ForceChange network

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