Pacific nations in flap over nothing?

For years New Zealand has faced allegations from its South Pacific neighbours that its dumping of low-quality meat has contributed to the epidemics of obesity and diabetes among islanders.

Now an unlikely source has come to the defence of Kiwi exporters: an American study that says there is nothing wrong with the meat, and the controversy has more to do with lingering "post-colonial anxieties".

Mutton and lamb flaps – the end piece of an animal's rib cut off in processing to get to the high-quality ribs and spare ribs – are seldom sold in New Zealand. They contain up to 50 per cent fat and are the main ingredient of doner kebabs.

In 2000, Fiji banned their import from New Zealand, saying they were playing a leading role in rising obesity.

A Tongan prime minister, 'Ulukalala Lavaka 'Ata, said they were "hardly edible by the health standards of New Zealand".

Epidemiology professor Robert Scragg, of Auckland University, called for New Zealand to cut back mutton flap exports, saying they damaged the health of Pacific populations. But anthropologists Deborah Gewertz of Amherst College, Massachusetts, and Frederick Errington of Trinity College, Connecticut, say there is no scientific evidence flaps are inherently unhealthy. In Cheap Meat: Flap Food Nations in the Pacific Islands, they have reviewed New Zealand's meat trade and given it a clean bill of health.

"Our story, therefore, is about an instructive and salient extreme: a First to Third World trade that brings the epitome of fatty meat to those with the epitome of fatty bodies."

Meat traders complained they were being singled out since many other high-fat foods, such as corned beef and butter, were also traded into the Pacific Islands.

The study agrees, saying that for Pacific Islanders, reducing sheep fat would probably not have much health benefit.

It calls the flaps a troubling symbol of the inequalities between the First and Third Worlds.

In Tonga, flaps constitute the single largest household expenditure, followed by chicken pieces, white bread and corned beef.

However, the study points out that Pacific Islanders seem unconcerned by the flood of turkey tails imported from the United States, which have more serious health implications and are not eaten by Americans. Yet they are not "fetishised" as flaps are.

The authors hail the New Zealand meat trade's transparency and consistency. "The meat industry is highly competitive, and all parts of the animals must be sold to make a profit. We do not think it is reasonable to expect the New Zealand Government to restrict the export of flaps."

Meat in New Zealand is produced from grass-fed sheep and processed in relatively reasonable and regulated workplaces. "Flaps, in other words, do not hide dirty little secrets of either origin or ontology. They are simply very fatty meat."

In 2006 the trade to the Pacific was worth about $28 million. There are also large markets for flaps in Mexico and Africa, and in Europe they are the main ingredient in doner kebabs. The authors studied flap production at Invercargill's Blue Sky Meats.

Chief executive Ricky Larsen said that with flaps no longer going to the Pacific, China was buying up most of them for the hot-pot restaurant trade.

The Dominion Post