No Reason to be Thankful

November 27, 2012

As Americans tuck into their roast turkeys, with all the trimmings to celebrate a good harvest enjoyed by the first settlers in Plymouth Massachusetts in 1621, it is unlikely that they are thinking about what the Samoans are eating at this time of year. They are too poor to afford turkeys, but they have a fondness for “turkey tails” — the fatty, gristly part of the birds—which locals call “mulipipi”. There is nothing healthy about this part of the bird, as it is 42 per cent fat, and much of the rest is gristle.

Samoans are not small people, and the WHO puts the obesity rate at 57%, the diabetes rate is 23.1% and the hypertension rate is 21.4%. As a result, the country’s health system is struggling to cope. To counter this health threat, in 2007 the Samoan government banned the import of turkey tails.

This ban hurt mainly US manufacturers, who could not sell this part of the bird on the local market and were dumping huge quantities in the Pacific, estimated to be about 4,000 tonnes. With a population of just 184,000, around 20 kilograms of “mulipipi” was being consumed by every man, woman and child in Samoa.  Little wonder that it was seen as a major cause of the obesity.

For the American exporter the ban represented an unhealthy attack on their profits, as so they acted. Soon after the ban, Samoa applied to join the World Trade Organization (WTO) and so the major food multinationals lobbied the US government to oppose Samoa’s membership until its ban on “turkey tails” was lifted. It was not a question of health but of free choice, according to industry lobbyists. “We feel it’s the consumers’ right to determine what foods they wish to consume, not the government’s,” says James H. Sumner, president of the USA Poultry & Egg Export Council. Industry argues that bans should be replaced by prevention programs to encourage citizens to take responsibility for their own health. The government has neither the funds nor capacity to implement such programs, and in any case they are seldom effective.

On October 28, 2011, the WTO agreed to allow Samoa to join the WTO, but with conditions. Noteworthy was a provision that stated that “Samoa would within 12 months, eliminate the prohibition on the importation and domestic distribution of turkey tails and turkey tail products …”.  As a concession, the WTO did allow the Samoan government to levy 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”. On May 10 2012 became the 155th member of WTO.

This case shows that WTO is able to promote trade ahead of public health, and poor countries, desperate to reap the benefits of membership, have little choice but to accept interference with their internal affairs.

Turkey tails are not the only meat offcut that enjoys a lucrative international market. Mutton flaps are also sold in large quantities into the Pacific, with New Zealand being a major exporter. They contain over 25 per cent fat, and are very popular among poor islanders.  According to a paper published in the Zealand Medical Journal, “excess consumption of imported food, especially imported fatty meats, has a causative relationship with endemic obesity in the Pacific”. Co-author of the article 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.

To date, no other Pacific country has legislated bans on unhealthy food products and they are unlikely to.

For industry, this was an important test case. What was at stake was not just the Samoan market for turkey tails, which is quite small. WTO’s decision sets a precedent, and warns other countries that might consider bans to protect public health that they will fail.

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