File Photo: REUTERS

Sydney - Australian officials on Wednesday said images of livestock shipped to Vietnam being killed with sledgehammers was “disgusting” but insisted there will be no knee-jerk reaction to ban the lucrative trade.

Activist group Animals Australia has lodged a complaint with the Australian agriculture department about the brutal slaughter after obtaining footage it said showed cattle having their skulls repeatedly smashed at a Vietnamese abattoir which was “too distressing to release publicly”.

“Formal complaints have been lodged with authorities,” the group said, claiming that thousands of Australian cattle had been slaughtered at abattoirs in Vietnam not approved by Canberra, as required by export controls.

“However, having assessed conditions on the ground we have grave fears about the ongoing situation for cattle in Vietnam and will be meeting face to face with industry representatives next week.”

Agriculture Minister Barnaby Joyce said he first became aware of the complaints in March and the abuse was limited to three family-run abattoirs in northern Vietnam, not large commercial operations.

“Obviously it's blunt instrument trauma, it's disgusting, it's something that happens in a range of parts of the world but we don't abide by it, we don't condone it,” he told national radio.

He added that an investigation had been launched to identify the exporters supplying the abattoirs and “if people need to be kicked out of the system they will”.

But he ruled out suspending trade to Vietnam, which has become one of Australia's biggest live cattle export markets worth more than Aus$100 million annually.

“We all live in Southeast Asia. If we want to keep our relationships on an even keel then we can't have knee-jerk reactions,” he said.

“We have to deal with the issue, fix the issue, work with the Vietnamese government, work with the system.”

The RSPCA said there had been problems in Vietnam for some time.

“This is a serious problem, we should not be allowing more cattle to be exported until these issues have been sorted out,” RSPCA chief scientist Bidda Jones told reporters.

Australia's live cattle export trade has been under the spotlight before, notably in 2013 when shipments to Egypt were suspended for months after abattoir footage shot by animal rights activists showed “horrific” mistreatment of cows.

Australia's live cattle trade to Indonesia was also temporary halted in 2011 on cruelty concerns.

Overall, the live export trade is worth about US$1 billion a year to Australia and employs thousands of people.