Fatty diet wreaks havoc in islands

By Vaimoana Tapaleao

NZ urged to impose a quota on disease-creating exports to the Pacific as diabetes and weight problems soar.

Pacific health experts are calling for a quota on the amount of fatty food - particularly mutton flaps and tinned corned beef - exported to the Pacific Islands, where heart disease, diabetes and obesity have become the norm.

World leaders, too, are being reminded to take into account the health issues and consequences when making free-trade policies in the Pacific.

This comes after Samoan MP Gatoloaifa'ana Amataga Alesana-Gidlow made a powerful call at the Pacific Parliamentary Forum in Wellington last week.

She told members: "We ask New Zealand to stop exporting to any poor and less developed neighbours in the Pacific all your fatty products that are not for sale in your own country because they are not considered to be of consumable standards."

This week, she said a ban on mutton flaps would do wonders for her country and the Pacific region.

"It's easy for people to say it's your own fault for eating those things. But the point is, it's there, it's available and that's why locals buy it."

For years New Zealand has exported to the Pacific Islands the cheaper cuts of meat not traditionally consumed by Kiwis.

They include lamb and mutton flaps - fatty cuts of sheepmeat not normally found on affluent New Zealanders' dining tables but more likely to be thrown away or fed to pets.

It costs between 8 tala ($4) and 10 tala for half a kilogram of mutton flaps in Samoa's capital, Apia.

When cooked, they are 26 per cent fat and 38 per cent protein.

The quantity of sheep cuts New Zealand has sent to the Pacific has halved in the past 10 years. In 2003, 22,710 tonnes of sheepmeat cuts were exported to the Pacific. Last year, that figure was 11,583 tonnes.

According to 2008 figures from the World Health Organisation, 54 per cent of Samoans are obese and 40 per cent have high blood pressure.

Public health official Dr Leausa Toleafoa Take Naseri said high cholesterol, obesity issues, heart disease and diabetes leading to limb amputations had become the norm.

For a country and region known for its fresh seafood and crops, that was a worrying trend, he said.

"Of course it's not just mutton flaps that are the problem - there are soft drinks high in sugar, salt, alcohol and cigarettes. People buy it all.

"Mutton flaps used to be very cheap back in the day. It's not so cheap now, I think, because New Zealand is now sending them to other countries. But for the generation who grew up on those, it's caught up with them now.

"We're dealing with people who are very obese, people with diabetic issues, amputations, the loss of sensation in their limbs, eye diseases and people having to go on dialysis. That's normal here now."

Dr Naseri said imposing a ban on mutton flaps was probably not realistic, but a quota might be.

"I think there needs to be a quota on certain fatty products coming from overseas; particularly New Zealand. There should be a quota on mutton flaps and other things like sugar and salt - salt is another big culprit in the islands."

Dr Colin Tukuitonga, a former New Zealand director of public health now based in New Caledonia, said a number of Pacific countries had tried to ban fatty products, including mutton flaps and turkey tails, in the past.

But World Trade Organisation (WTO) policies had prevented them going through with those bans.

"Samoa banned turkey tails from the US a few years ago, but they were forced to go back on that because they wanted to join the WTO and if they wanted to, they had to open up foreign trade."

Fiji is the only Pacific country to have successfully banned mutton flaps.

Dr Tukuitonga, director of the Public Health Division for the Secretariat of the Pacific Community, said restricting the export of mutton flaps to the Pacific Islands had to be New Zealand's move.

"New Zealand can restrict what they send to the islands. But the meat industry won't restrict it if they can sell it in South Auckland; because if they can sell it in South Auckland then they can sell it in Apia."

Meat Industry Association chief executive Tim Ritchie said the fatty products had been a weakness of Pacific people for years.

But banning, or partially banning, the export of sheep cuts was not the answer.

"We would not be supportive of quotas because ... it would divert the attention to other less healthy products that the population has access to, like chicken thighs, wings and Big Macs."

Mr Ritchie said showing people how to prepare and cook mutton flaps in a healthier way would be more beneficial.

In New Zealand, members of the Pacific community continue to use large quantities of lamb flaps, boxes of tinned corned beef and barrels of povi masima (salted beef) for weddings and funerals.

A survey of butchers around South Auckland, where there is a large Pacific population, found that mutton flaps were not readily available.

However, lamb flaps were still popular because they were cheaper than leaner cuts of meat and could be used to feed a big family.

In recent years, organisers of the Pasifika Festival and the annual secondary schools PolyFest have banned stallholders from selling the high-fat product.

Nash Jack, owner of Jack's Wholesale Meats in Flat Bush, said his customers often bought lamb flaps as they were economical.

The store sometimes sold mutton packs, which included flaps, but they weren't as popular.

"It's a well-known fact we can cook a bit of fat. But you don't have to eat it. You just want the flavour there and then you can cut it off. We've noticed if the lamb flaps are a bit fatty, they won't sell."

Pacific Heartbeat, which falls under the Heart Foundation, has been working for years to change habits.

Operations manager and dietician Mafi Funaki-Tahifote admitted that had been difficult. "It's hard to tell someone who has spent $10 on a flap to then cut off half of that - effectively throwing away $5."

Mrs Funaki-Tahifote, who grew up in Tonga, said mutton flaps were very much the meat of choice there now.

"It's more expensive than what it was when I was growing up, but people still buy it ... The taste is ingrained in the culture. It's a luxury item and it's very much a delicacy in the islands."

- NZ Herald

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