The company at the centre of a live sheep export scandal, Emanuel Exports, is now the focus of a criminal investigation into its treatment of animals after being told to demonstrate why it should not be stripped of its export licence.
The Federal Department of Agriculture sent Emanuel Exports a show-cause notice at least three weeks ago, and it is understood lawyers for the company sent back a 30-page response about two weeks ago.
The department began the investigation after video footage emerged showing almost 2,500 sheep either dead or dying of thirst and heat exhaustion in faeces-strewn pens aboard the livestock carrier Awassi Express in the Middle East last year.
The department would not confirm if its criminal investigation was focused on Emanuel Exports, but said it was part of its response to the footage.
"This includes investigating allegations of overstocking of the vessel, failing to have sufficient food and water available, injury and illness not being treated and accredited veterinarians and stockmen leaving the vessel prior to completion of unloading," it said in a statement.
"A range of witnesses are being questioned and information is being examined by the department."
The probe will look at whether there have been breaches of the Meat and Livestock Industry Act, the Export Control Act or the Criminal Code Act.Some shippers 'have behaved appallingly'
Emanual Exports is based in Perth and the company's offices were the target of protests when the Awassi Express berthed in the WA port of Fremantle soon after the footage was aired.
West Australian Premier Mark McGowan welcomed the latest development.
"I'm glad. I think it's overdue," he said.
"It should have occurred before, but these examples deserve prosecution.
"We've seen the imagery, we've heard the stories, it's very clear cut that some of these shippers have behaved appallingly and so prosecuting them under the law is the least the Commonwealth can do."
Federal Agriculture Minister David Littleproud said he hoped and expected the independent regulator was using the full extent of its powers.Extreme heat and humidity 'an anomaly'
Emanuel Exports has previously stated it had already reduced stocking density rates in the northern summer by up to 15 per cent beyond the industry benchmark.
The company also said there was extreme heat and humidity in Doha when the sheep on the Awassi Express died.
"Such weather events are an anomaly and voyage records show the vast majority of deliveries during the hotter summer months each year are successful," the company said.
The McCarthy review of standards for the live sheep trade during the Middle Eastern summer was released last month and recommended a "seismic shift" in the stocking density model.
The recommendation would reduce the number of animals allowed on ships in hotter months — increasing space for sheep by up to 39 per cent.
The stocking density will vary depending on the month, meaning that as heat increases, sheep numbers must decrease.