Fatty food imports, such as mutton flaps and turkey tails – waste products from affluent countries – are a cause of obesity in the Pacific and have been criticised in the NZ Medical Journal.
Report – By Rose Rees-Owen
Alma Hayes returned from her two-week holiday in Samoa, refreshed and rejuvenated. She talks of beautiful sunsets on tranquil beaches and delicious and fresh produce.
“You can’t get much fresher than going out to the banana tree and whacking off a bunch for breakfast,” she says. However, Hayes stayed in fales with breakfast and dinner included.
There is a paradox between what tourists such as Hayes experience and what many local Samoans eat – supermarkets and markets in Samoa frequently sell imported fatty, mutton flaps, turkey tails and unsafe to eat eggs.
An article titled “New Zealand’s impact on health in the South Pacific: Scope for improvement?” in the New Zealand Medical Journal has warned “excess consumption of imported food, especially imported fatty meats, has a causative relationship with endemic obesity in the Pacific”.
According to Islands Business, the most relevant survey on obesity in Samoa was done by STEP in 2002, and claims that 85.2 percent of the population in Samoa is obese.
The magazine also cites figures saying that 81.1 percent of men are obese or overweight and 89.8 percent of women are obese or overweight.
Critics condemn “clean, green” New Zealand for contributing to these statistics.
Mutton flaps are fatty scraps of sheep meat. They contain 27.4 gm of fat per 100 gm and New Zealand is a major exporter.
The Medical Journal article says: “From July 2006 to July 2007, NZ$73 million of sheep meat was exported to the Pacific Islands, constituting New Zealand’s largest export good to the Pacific.”
Co-author of the article in the NZ Medical Journal and associate public health professor at the University of Otago, Dr Nick Wilson, wrote: “I think it is really disgraceful for a wealthy country like New Zealand to export such unhealthy food.
“What is the point of giving Pacific countries development assistance on one hand – and then spreading heart disease epidemics via our hazardous exports on the other.”
Another fatty meat regularly sold in Samoa is turkey tails.
They are imported from the United States of America and contain an even higher fat content than mutton flaps.
“Turkey tails top the fat content chart with 32 grams of fat per 100 grams,” reports Islands Business.
Jason Garman, media and communications adviser for Oxfam New Zealand, says turkey tails have poor nutritional values.
“They are the fattiest part of the turkey. Most Americans don’t even know they exist and wouldn’t consider eating them.”
So why are Samoans and the wider Pacific allowing these nutrition imports?
Dr Roman Grynberg, a Pacific authority on trade, says the reason is simple – many Pacific Islanders are poor “and these foods are cheap”.
“Local healthy foods such as fresh fish, vegetables and root crops are much more expensive,” he says.
Edwin Tamasese, a domestic egg farmer in Samoa, is saddened by the quality of eggs imported from the US.
Since March, imported eggs have been forced to put a use-by-date on their products but Tamasese laments that this has not changed much for domestic egg farmers.
“Importers are putting a 60-day sell by date on the cartons instead of the 30-day sell by date that California uses.”
This means that when eggs are close to expiring in California, the US can dump them on Samoa, and recover some of their losses.
The major health risk due to the eggs being in the market place for 30 extra days is the presence of Salmonella enteritidus in American poultry.
“With the increased selling time there is a much higher probability of deadly bacteria within the eggs,” says Tamasese.
The cheap, imported eggs have intruded heavily on the business of domestic egg farmers.
Tamasese says that the imported eggs have created an “uneven playing field”.
The imbalance is responsible for the closure of 13 out of 15 farms on the island, and the remaining two are under severe pressure.
“Domestic producers now only supply approximately 10 – 15 per cent of the market,” says Tamasese.
Documentary on diet
Mark Dolan’s controversial documentary, The World’s Fattest Families and Me, was broadcast recently.
Dolan journeyed to Tonga where he met Towa, 222 kg, and his daughter Sia, 133kg.
The documentary touched many when Dolan took Sia to the supermarket, and showed Sia the nutritional value in the fatty mutton flaps.
He told Sia New Zealanders did not eat this.
“This is the bit that they throw away,” he said. Sia broke down in tears.
The documentary exposed that there are no food export regulations in place.
Sue Kedgely, Green Party MP and spokesperson for food, health and wellbeing, said: “New Zealand has a hands-off free trade approach to trade, and government seems to stand back and allow exporters to more or less do what they want.”
Commercial interests take priority over the health of poor nations, such as Samoa.
“Trade is not neutral, it can have devastating effects on nations but trade occurs in a context where poverty in our region is endemic and power is used by our neighbours to further their own commercial interests,” says Dr Grynberg.
Dr Grynberg also comments that mutton flaps would be processed into pet food in New Zealand, and by exporting the flaps cheap to the Pacific, suppliers can sell their product at a higher price to humans.
Nick Braxton, advocacy and research coordinator of Oxfam New Zealand, says the Samoan government is trying to ban turkey tails from being imported because of their poor nutritional value.
But because turkey tails are a waste product in the United States, and are generating profit, the US is opposing the ban.
The NZ Medical Journal says that Fiji banned mutton flap imports in 2000 and New Zealand responded by threatening to refer the issue to the World Trade Organisation because it goes against the policy of free trade between the two nations.
However, the threat was later dropped and the ban stands.
Dr Grynberg believes that it is an issue of giving the masses what they want, and that is the reason why the government has not taken action.
“Any Pacific Islands government that heavily taxes these products or bans them will suffer the ire of the working poor at the elections and so the issue is largely avoided.” Dr Grynberg said.
Rose Rees-Owen is a Postgraduate Diploma in Communication Studies student on the Asia-Pacific Journalism course at AUT University.