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Cattle on Live Export ship from Australia (Courtesy Dr. Lynn Simpson)

Where does meat come from? It’s an innocent question that’s often asked by children and I think it’s time for Israeli consumers to ask the same question.

More specifically, I would suggest the question should be, “where does the meat in Israeli butcher shops and supermarket meat counters — the meat I’m about to eat or serve to my family, the meat that, in a few short weeks, will be the main course on my Rosh Hashanah holiday table — where does that meat actually come from, and how did it get here?”

The answer may come as a surprise.

Many meat consumers do not realize that there is an industry known as ‘live animal export’. This industry transports hundreds of thousands of living animals destined to potentially become your meal long distances, often for weeks on end, by ship over vast seas and oceans. These ships vary in capacity from 1000 to 20,000 cattle or 100,000 sheep or a combination of the two. They are like floating multi-story parking garages.

I know these ships very well. I was a shipboard veterinarian who worked on such vessels sailing from Australia for over a decade, delivering live animals to numerous countries. Israel was one of the countries to which I frequently helped make deliveries, whether directly to Eilat or via Jordan.

This wasn’t a job I relished, but it was a job I found tremendously meaningful as a medical provider to the animals in my care. These animals usually travelled in overcrowded and filthy conditions and often experienced disease and injuries while on the ships. As such, my job was to monitor their health, medicate and treat any sick or injured animals, and also kill and dispose of animals that unfortunately couldn’t be saved, their bodies thrown into the sea.

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Livestock on Live Export ship from Australia (Lynne Simpson)

The number of live export ships worldwide just breaks 100. They barely register as a trade in comparison to the world’s entire shipping fleet for other commodities such as TV sets, clothing, furniture and shipping containers of food, including clean, well-regulated meat products.

Meat imports to countries with small herd capacity such as Israel can be delivered processed to religious specifications from many countries. Australia has a large, high quality meat trade that exports both Kosher and Halal meat.

It’s common knowledge in the meat and public health industries that meat is a better product if it has had a high welfare lifestyle before being processed into your next meal. This is an opinion I share. What does this mean? Ideally it means the animal is humanely slaughtered as close to its place of birth as possible. It means it has been exposed to low stress environments and has lived a life of minimum disease risk and exposure.

The live export trade to Israel, especially from Australia in my experience, exposes all animals on the ships to very long distance travel, stressful shipboard environments and great risk of disease and injury.

Australian legislation requires all animals that are identified as sick on a voyage to be medically treated or killed. The animal sewerage contamination most animals become covered in during the voyage means that their individual ear tag identification numbers cannot be read. Therefore: treatment records are logistically difficult if not impossible to maintain. For consumer safety, all animals coming off a ship should be considered a public health risk from either disease, infection or medication residues for at least three months.

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Ear tag identification unreadable (Lynne Simpson)

Nobody likes to get sick, especially during a special occasion or when travelling. When I’ve been in Israel after delivering live cattle, I have seen meat in butcher shops with injection marks that run deep into the flesh. The bruising is indicative of the types of injection guns we use on the ships; the spread of the bruise is indicative of how deep the main concentration of medication has spread. The color of the bruise indicative of recent injection, hence such meat poses a high drug residue risk.

Consumption of such residue has serious ramifications: First, the animal was still ill when it was slaughtered and was likely to have been deemed unhealthy for human consumption. Second, the residue level may contribute to the formidable global problem of antibiotic resistance. And, worst-case scenario, whomever eats that meat may have a reaction to the residue should they be physically sensitive to whatever the injected medication was.

These are all public health risks that can be reduced or eliminated by strict quality control measures such as those used in export meat processing plants from reputable providers.

Knowing what I know about the live animal export trade, I have made a point throughout my career of not consuming red meat in countries that receive Live Animal imports. Regardless of Australia having one of the world’s highest standards of Live Animal Export, I think they are not good enough. I generally choose a seafood or vegetarian alternative.

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(Lynne Simpson)

I reserve my red meat consumption for when I am in Australia, as I know we do not import live animals for food. Therefore I have great confidence in any red meat product that I may personally consume. The health, safety and welfare parameters involved in Australia’s red meat processing facilities V’s the Live Animal Export trade, are strict and reliably provide a high quality product for human consumption and greater welfare outcomes for the animals.

Israelis should be aware of the risks, and give thought to what quality product they wish to consume or serve. Have a happy and healthy Jewish New Year!

Dr Lynn Simpson is an Australian Veterinarian who began working with the live export trade in 1999. She sailed on Live Export ships for over a decade, completing 57 voyages to the northern hemisphere from Australia. Lynn consulted widely to Live export programs including Industry initiatives and Government legislative reform attempts. She specialized in the health and welfare of primary production animals such as Cattle and Sheep especially during long distance transportation by sea and holds a masters degree in Veterinary Epidemiology focusing on non-infectious disease transmission. Lynn has travelled extensively throughout Israel and the Middle East and currently resides in Australia.