WHO says Australia exported listeria-tainted melons to Kuwait
SYDNEY: An export ship due to carry more than 50,000 sheep to the Middle East has been blocked from leaving Australia after secret footage emerged of distressed animals dying and struggling to breathe in filthy conditions. Australia’s live animal export trade, worth more than Aus$800 million (US$615 million) annually, has been under scrutiny in recent years after footage shot at offshore abattoirs showed cattle being mistreated.
The latest images, shot onboard Panama-flagged livestock carrier Awassi Express, showed large numbers of sheep packed together in small, stifling pens, covered in or surrounded by excrement. Many were dead. The footage, captured over five voyages last year to Qatar, Kuwait and Oman from Australian ports, was released by activist group Animals Australia. “They just died in front of us,” Faisal Ullah, a graduate from Pakistan’s Marine Academy who shot the videos, told broadcaster Channel Nine which first aired the footage Sunday. “Just one by one. One after another… I mean, you are just putting live animals into the oven.”
Channel Nine said the sheep were stacked 10 storeys high in the ship and forced to stay standing for three weeks, often in “blast-furnace” northern hemisphere summer conditions. Ullah said lambs born to pregnant sheep, which are not supposed to be exported, died on the vessel and were thrown overboard. The Australian Maritime Safety Authority (AMSA) said yesterday that thousands of sheep died. The same ship, which was due to depart Fremantle on Australia’s west coast this week, reportedly headed for Qatar and Kuwait, was blocked from leaving by AMSA after an inspection “raised some concerns about air flow over some pens”.
Agriculture Minister David Littleproud said yesterday he had held “constructive” talks with the industry and welfare groups to strengthen the standards in livestock trade. Littleproud ruled out banning the live export trade but said he was taking other measures, including establishing a whistleblower hotline by the end of the week so people to “call out bad behavior”. “It is important we get integrity into the live system and those people doing wrong need to be held to account, whether that is a company or an individual,” he told reporters.
Emanuel Exports, which uses Awassi Express, told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation it had made changes to welfare requirements, such as lower loading volumes and a government observer on board its ships. Australia previously suspended live shipments to Egypt for several months in 2013 after abattoir footage showed “horrific” mistreatment of cows. Trade to Indonesia was also temporary halted in 2011 on cruelty concerns.
Separately, melons contaminated with deadly listeriosis bacteria were exported to at least nine countries from Australia, where an outbreak has killed seven people and caused one miscarriage, the World Health Organization said yesterday. The rockmelons, or cantaloupes, were sent to Hong Kong, Japan, Kuwait, Malaysia, Oman, Qatar, Singapore, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, and may also have gone to the Seychelles, a WHO statement said.
Between Jan 17 and April 6, Australia reported 19 confirmed and one probable case of listeriosis, all of whom were hospitalized. Seven died. The Listeria monocytogenes bacterium has a potentially long incubation period, usually one or two weeks but possibly up to 90 days, so more cases may be reported, the WHO said. “Cases in the affected countries may still be identified,” it said. The Australian melon producer, which the WHO did not name, recalled the fruit on Feb 27. On March 2 Australian authorities discovered the firm’s melons had been exported, and they sent detailed notifications through the International Food Safety Authorities Network to the countries concerned.
“It is believed that the cause of the outbreak was a combination of environmental conditions and weather contaminating the surface of the fruit, with low levels of the bacteria persisting after the washing process,” the WHO said. “The grower continues to work closely with the relevant authorities and has returned to supply rockmelons (during the week starting 2 April) after testing cleared the property.”
Listeriosis can come in a mild form that causes diarrhoea and fever in healthy people within a few days. But it also has a severe form that can cause septicemia and meningitis among more high-risk people, such as pregnant women, infants, old people, and people having treatment for cancer, AIDS or organ transplants. The severe form has a 20-30 percent mortality rate. As well as unwashed fruit, high risk foods include dairy products made of unpasteurized milk, soft cheeses, deli meat products, ice creams, raw seafood, crustaceans and shellfish. A separate listeriosis outbreak in South Africa killed at least 180 people earlier this year, sparking a class-action lawsuit against South African food producer Tiger Brands.