Bum Deal On Back End Of Big Birds
By Mike SeccombeNovember 19, 2012
Follow the trail of turkey tails for a feast of understanding about — no, really! — world trade. It’s all about extra stuffing.
In America, turkey is what they eat to give thanks. Samoans, however, have no reason to be thankful to US turkey farmers.
That’s because the American turkey industry, with the complicity of the World Trade Organisation, has recently given Samoa the arse. Pardon the expression, but we mean it literally.
The correct euphemism for what they have forced on Samoans is “turkey tails” — the fatty, gristly part of the birds that my grandfather would have called, “the bit that goes over the fence last”. It’s the bit that affluent and health-conscious westerners, and even most Americans, have little appetite for.
Ah, but Samoans, like the people of other Pacific Islands with historical and economic links with the USA — including Guam, Palau, the Marshall Islands and Federated States of Micronesia — love ’em.
Neighbouring islands which traditionally have stronger links with Australia and New Zealand, likewise love mutton flaps — a similarly unwanted, unhealthy by-product of the developed world’s meat industry.
We’ll get to mutton flaps in our main course, but by way of a starter, let’s explore the tale of the turkey tails. It began 14 years ago, with Samoa’s application to join the World Trade Organisation.
Before a country can be accepted into the WTO, it must negotiate an “accession package” of acceptable terms and conditions.
One big reason Samoa’s negotiation took so long was that in the middle of it, in August 2007, the Samoan government banned the importation of turkey tails.
The turkey pygostyle (literally, “rump pillar”) is also known, depending on your political or religious persuasions, variously as the parson’s nose, Pope’s nose, or sultan’s nose. Essentially a fleshy couple of vertebrae, the pygostyle contains the uropygial gland that produces preen oil and — according to some cooks, including Heston Blumenthal — a greasy, bitter and rancid eating experience. It is also mind-blowingly unhealthy. Turkey tails are 42 per cent fat, and much of the rest is gristle.
Yet until recently Samoans ate tails, which they call “mulipipi”, in enormous quantities. It was the public health officials’ fault. In the year to July 2007 — just before the ban — turkey-tail imports totalled close to 4,000 tonnes, or more than 20 kilograms for every man, woman and child in Samoa.
Samoans are among the fattest people on the planet and have among the highest rates of lifestyle-related health problems. According to the Samoan government’s own figures, almost 53 per cent of Samoan adults are obese, nearly one in four have diabetes and more than one in five have high blood pressure.
What’s more, the government report noted these lifestyle diseases “are now appearing in younger age groups and complications… are more common”.
And the government may have been understating the problem; the WHO puts the obesity rate at almost 60 per cent, while other studies have put it at over 80 per cent.
So the import ban made a lot of sense, from a public-health perspective.
But not so much for the transnational food industry. The poultry lobby in particular took an aggressive position against this Samoan measure to stop it dumping its food scraps in the South Pacific, as is evidenced by the words of James H. Sumner, president of the USA Poultry & Egg Export Council, to Businessweek in 2011: “We feel it’s the consumers’ right to determine what foods they wish to consume, not the government’s.”
And the WTO, whose mission is to promote trade, not public health, heard the poultry lobby’s cry.
So on October 28, 2011, just over four years after Samoa implemented its ban on turkey tails, the WTO announced that the tiny state — population about 180,000, mainly spread over two sublimely beautiful volcanic islands — had won membership, subject to certain reforms to be phased in over time.
Some reforms were quite ordinary, such as committing to transparency of legislative processes, ensuring old cars were checked for roadworthiness, et cetera. And then there was this one:
“Samoa would within 12 months [i.e. by May 10, 2013], eliminate the prohibition on the importation and domestic distribution of turkey tails and turkey tail products ...”
As a “transitional measure”, the government would be allowed to maintain a 300 per cent import duty for a year, “to allow time to develop and implement a nationwide program promoting healthier diet and lifestyle choices.
“After two years,” the WTO statement continued, “the domestic sale ban would be lifted and the import duty would be reduced to 100 per cent or replaced by another tax regulation or by recommendations from the program.”
Whatever that means.
The bottom line, though, is that Samoans will again be able to indulge their morbid appetite for the very worst kind of junk food. Thank you, turkey farmers. Thank you, World Trade Organisation.
More importantly perhaps, from the producers’ point of view, Samoa’s agreement to lift its ban means it does not set a precedent that other tail-eating nations might follow. For while tails make up a smallish part of the USD5 billion (in 2011) turkey business, they and other sundry chopped-off bits of turkey are a big export. Big enough that the US Department of Agriculture produces daily national “parts” statistics, complete with commentary, such as this, from Thursday November 15: “The market on bulk parts was steady. Demand and offerings was light to moderate. The market on tom breast meat remains not fully tested…”
That bulletin recorded export sales of 40,000 tails, at an average price of 52 cents a pound. For just one day.
Not all go to Pacific nations, of course. America sells them into less developed countries all over the world. You can see why they couldn’t let Samoa get away with its ban.
So we move on to the deliciously named mutton flaps, which Boyd Swinburn, a University of Auckland professor of population nutrition and global health, and co-chair of the International Obesity Task Force, identifies as the other main commodity in “the export market for non-communicable diseases”.
Mutton flaps are more variable in their fat content than turkey tails — typically 25 to 35 per cent, but sometimes up to 50 per cent fat — but they are consumed in even greater quantities.
New Zealand is the main culprit here; it exports tens of thousands of tonnes of these things — offcuts really, from the rib/belly area of sheep — which otherwise would be used for pet food or simply dumped.
In early 2004, the Tongan government considered imposing restrictions on mutton-flap imports.
Swinburn was one of those commissioned to do a report for the Tongan health minister to take to Cabinet, setting out the case for restrictions.
That report included survey data showing that every week the average Tongan adult ate 600 grams of mutton flaps, which amounted to about 20 per cent of all meat in their diet. Flaps were the biggest single item of food expenditure in the average Tongan food budget.
The survey also recorded a significant intake of turkey tails (exact quantities weren’t specified), and about another 150 grams per adult of high-fat/high-salt canned meat.
In all, Tongans were consuming an average 21,000 kilojoules (5,000 calories) per day, or about twice the recommended healthy intake.
“They [members of the government] were quite enthusiastic for a while,” says Swinburn.
“The Minister for Health was on side. But it got squashed because Tonga was at that stage trying to accede to the WTO … and it was seen that the WTO would not look favourably on such a move.
“So the WTO has got a fair bit to answer for.”
BUT JUST LAYING the blame on the trade organisation is simplifying a complex problem, which really goes back to long before the WTO was even formed, and which has its roots in the interaction of traditional culture and modern consumption.
The traditional diet of Pacific Islanders was very low in fat, compared with almost anywhere else. “Fish and coconut were really about the only sources of fat in their diet,” says Dr Wendy Snowdon, co-ordinator of the Pacific Research Centre for the Prevention of Obesity and Non-communicable Diseases, Fiji National University.
“Colonialisation of the Pacific brought a lot of these other foods in, with the perception that because they were imported they must be better. Habits started to develop around high-fat, -salt and -sugar items,” she says.
Boyd Swinburn suggests a “pre-disposition at a social and cultural level” to the health problems that followed. Among people for whom fatty foods were uncommon and who consequently tended towards a very lean body shape, he says, larger body size was traditionally reflective of high status.
Then there were cultural traditions “whereby large portions of food are important for hospitality, for generosity, for status,” he says.
“Once everybody, not just the chiefs, can bring a whole box of chickens to the wedding, then it ends up with a lot of food on the table.”
Foods that were higher in fat originally had cachet, because of their relative scarcity. The trouble is, that cachet endures even though those foods no longer are scarce.
But it wasn’t just that high-fat foods became more accessible. Traditional sources of nutrition also became less so, says Tim Gill, principal research fellow at the Boden Institute of Obesity, Nutrition, Exercise and Eating Disorders, University of Sydney.
“Where very small populations are forced into a global market they have to produce commodities to put onto that market. So they end up producing things to export rather than to feed themselves,” he says.
Take fish, for example.
“You find a lot of Pacific islands no longer control their own fishing rights,” says Gill.
Japan in particular has been very active in supplying aid to countries in return for fishing rights.
“So the people lose a healthy source of protein and have to substitute something else,” says Gill.
Another factor that has contributed to the food woes of these small nations is that each is a separate member of the United Nations. “And their vote is worth something,” says Gill. “A lot of countries — China, Japan, Australia — buy their votes on various issues, which contributes to aid dependency.”
Probably the most publicised example of this phenomenon is the way Japan bribes small nations for support to continue its whaling program.
Even when aid is offered more or less with genuinely good intent, “as provision of cheap food to countries which needed it,” Gill says, it often has perverse consequences.
He cites the example of Samoa, which was hit by severe cyclones each year between 1989 and 1993, the worst being Cyclone Val in 1992, which destroyed about half the nation’s coconut palms, and defoliated 90 per cent of the country.
The fruit and vegetable crops that were wiped out by Val were never replaced, he says. People just became more dependent on less healthful imported foods. And by 2002, according to that Samoan government health policy report we mentioned earlier, almost 36 per cent of the population ate “virtually no fruit”.
So poorly considered aid contributed to the public-health disaster now facing Pacific island nations, but mostly it is attributable to “free” trade.
Anne-Marie Thow, from the Menzies Centre for Health Policy at University of Sydney, studies the food trade and its impact on people’s diets.
“Trade and agriculture are very tightly linked,” she says.
“Cheap meat imports in particular can really undermine domestic production, because the fatty cuts that aren’t desirable in their countries of origin are a liability for the producers, so they just want to offload them cheap. They just dump them on these countries.”
Ironically, when people in the islands are surveyed, she says, they tend to say they prefer traditional foods.
“Yet they eat white rice and cheap, fatty imported meats. It’s much quicker to prepare a cup of white rice than it is to cut up and prepare a staple like taro.”
And it’s much cheaper to buy turkey tails or mutton flaps or high-salt, high-fat canned meat than fish or better cuts of meat.
All the experts spoken to agreed that cost was the biggest consideration. But it’s not the only one.
Says Snowdon: “There is also an issue of preferring the fattier product. They are used to the taste. The same goes for salt and sugar.”
Turkey tails and mutton flaps have become more or less staples.
They are barbecued, sold by the roadside as snack foods, thrown in the pot with vegies to make stews, incorporated into traditional meals with taro and coconut.
Snowdon herself has never tried them; she is a vegetarian. But she says colleagues who have sampled them generally found them to be “disgusting and greasy”.
We should note that there’s a turkey-tail subculture in the United States which finds this cut delectable: “…they are almost entirely fat — this is a good thing — and they roast up all crispy and explode with flavour when you bite into them, if you eat them straight up,” writes one recent contributor to the US Chowhound website, offering recipes for Thanksgiving.
We have no way of knowing the body-mass index or general state of health of this individual, but we do know the effect of tails and flaps in the Pacific.
“Atrocious,” says Snowdon. “Among the nations of the world, Pacific islands are seven of the top 10 for diabetes.”
They are also among the fattest countries. WHO data tell the story. You already know of the almost 60 per cent of Samoans who are obese. In Tonga it’s 56 per cent; Tuvalu, 68 per cent; American Samoa, 75 per cent; Kiribati, 51 per cent; Cook Islands, 40 per cent. The list goes on.
We should add here that the situation in Papua New Guinea, while not yet as dire, is rapidly deteriorating. The WHO table referenced above does not record obesity stats for PNG, but does record that in some urban areas, about 70 per cent of adults are overweight. Other WHO data shows more than 16 per cent of the overal population is obese, but there are wide variations by region. People’s weight, blood pressure, rates of cardiovascular disease and diabetes are rising rapidly.
Saddest of all is tiny Nauru, where 78.5 per cent of adults are obese, according to WHO.
“Nauru,” says Swinburn, “is the most extreme example of food substitution. It got very rich very quickly — phosphate mining made Nauruans at one point the wealthiest people, per capita, in the world — and turned to enormous amounts of imported foods, with resulting enormous rates of obesity and diabetes.
“And when the phosphate money ran out and they plunged back to being a low-income country, they had to try to re-establish their skills.”
Except, in the meantime, almost all the island’s arable topsoil and vegetation had been removed.
Without the rivers of phosphate money, without the prospect of agriculture or tourism — who wants to visit a moonscape overcrowded with obese sedentary natives? — it was no wonder the Nauruan government, desperate for any income, was cynically seen as an easy mark by the Australian government looking to offload asylum seekers. Misery dumped upon misery.
Such exploitative behaviour on the part of the governments of larger countries is nothing new.
Says Gill: “I distinctly remember being at a meeting back in 2001 of Commonwealth Ministers in New Zealand, where the subject of the export of fatty meats came up.
“Both Australia and particularly New Zealand were keen to close down any discussion around that trade.
“Quite clearly, mutton flap exports were a way of them solving a problem of what to do with these waste products. It’s the same as America and turkey tails.”
New Zealand may be the major culprit in relation to flap exports to the islands, but Australia exports tens of thousands of tonnes of flap meat to PNG each year.
It has also found a growth market in China.
And we’re not talking just turkey tails and mutton flaps, either. Pacific island shops have whole aisles devoted to canned meats, many of them sourced from Australia and New Zealand, says Wendy Snowdon.
“The ones sent to the islands have higher fat — 25 to 30 per cent fat as opposed to about 15 [in similar products sold in Australia]. These special versions made for the Pacific Island market are also higher in salt,” she says.
Snowdon sent The Global Mail a list of these products.
BUT THERE IS SOME BLOWBACK for bigger countries. For example, the addiction to fatty meat is increasingly being brought home to New Zealand with the migration of Islanders. Furthermore some of the islands such as the Cook Islands and Niue, have rights to access the NZ healthcare system.
In 2007 a New Zealand parliamentary inquiry into obesity and type two diabetes found the diseases cost the country’s healthcare system a quarter of a billion dollars a year, and Māori and Islander people were disproportionately prominent in the system.
The inquiry found Māori and islander people were two or three times as likely to develop diabetes, and to do so about 10 years earlier than New Zealanders of European descent. Māori men were found to be 6.5 times as likely to die from diabetes, and Māori women 10 times as likely; Islanders are five times as likely to die from diagnosed diabetes than New Zealand’s European population.
The inquiry was highly critical of the role played by the food-and-beverage industry in exacerbating these tendencies and recommended the NZ government, meat industry, and the Pacific nations “work co-operatively to phase out the export of fatty meats (such as mutton flaps), to Pacific nations”.
“It was one of the first recommendations to be formally ditched,” says Swinburn, who gave expert evidence to the inquiry.
“This is the whole business of private gain and public cost. If the meat exporters had to pay for part of the diabetes costs they might think twice about [their trade in fatty meats],” he says.
Heretical thought. About as heretical as suggesting Australia should take some responsibility for the health problems of Papua New Guineans who have grown fat and ill on our junk-food exports. Instead, much parliamentary concern is directed at limiting the access PNG residents have to Australian health services in the Torres Strait.
The unfortunate reality, says Snowdon, is that this is the way things go when globalisation comes to small, less developed countries.
“Developed countries are pushing less developed countries to make changes to their systems, to further world trade, regardless of whether or not there are negative effects on these smaller countries,” she says.
“Developed countries, at the same time, are much more ingenious at implementing non-trade barriers to protect themselves.”
But wait. There is some good news. One Pacific nation has managed to resist food imports that pose a danger to its populace, at least to some extent.
That is Fiji, a member of the WTO since 1996. It has an obesity rate of 23.9 per cent, lower than Australia (25.6) and the United States (33.8).
In 2000, Fiji took action to limit the consumption of mutton flaps, but it did so in a way compliant with World Trade rules. Instead of restricting imports, which would have been seen as discrimination against foreign products, Fiji banned the sale of mutton flaps — including those produced domestically — on the basis that flaps were “likely to cause the death... or to adversely affect the health or well-being of a person”.
While this did not stop the sale of other fatty meat, it did have a positive impact that extended beyond mutton flaps, says Anne-Marie Thow.
“It made people think about their diet. A Fiji survey five years after the 2000 ban showed awareness of the dumping issue.”
While the ban was pushed very much as a health measure, it also became one of national pride, she says.
“People said ‘It’s not right that you should just dump your rubbish onto us.’”
And when Thow looks at the data on Samoan eating habits following the ban on turkey tails, she sees hopeful signs too.
Pessimists and the forces of dietary darkness predicted Samoans would simply substitute another kind of fatty product. But that is not what Thow has found.
“The survey data showed some people ate other fatty meat, but some ate more fish, and others just ate less meat. I couldn’t see any replacement, overall.”
So there is mounting evidence that government intervention works, and that if they are cunning about it, as Fiji was, small Pacific nations can take action within WTO rules.
But as for the prospects that the governments, primary producers, and transnational food companies of their bigger trading partners might ever do the right thing voluntarily?