Thanks for mutton, New Zealand: Your fatty meat products are making Tonga obese

Image: Reuters/Naomi Tajitsu
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In Tonga, the taste for fish and vegetables—lean staples of traditional Pacific island diets—was lost long ago.

As of 2010, Tongan households were spending more money on mutton, chicken, white bread, and corned beef than any other food items (p. 140). The fact that more than 90% of the population is overweight or obese is widely attributed to the country’s love of imported meat, especially the mutton flaps, or fatty cuts of low-quality sheep meat from New Zealand.

Mutton flaps were outlawed in Fiji more than a decade ago for this reason. Politicians in other Pacific island nations have advocated for quotas on how many mutton flaps New Zealand can export each year.

In 2013, a Samoan official pleaded: ”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.”

Samoa banned mutton flaps and turkey tails—another low-grade, high-fat meat product exported from the US—in 2007, but the ban could not be maintained when Samoa wanted to join the World Trade Organization (WTO). However Samoa was able to slap tariffs on the meat imports, and ongoing public health education initiatives seek to change local dietary preferences. Like Tonga, Samoa has one of the highest rates of obesity in the world.

As the BBC reports, people in Tonga and other islands in Oceania may be genetically predisposed to obesity, and until recently they revered round figures as beautiful. Additionally, islanders have developed tastes not just for mutton flaps and turkey tails, but a whole host of processed and sugary foods: white bread, soda, and candy.

The evolution of the average Tongan’s diet is now changing public health: Average male life expectancy declined from 70 to 65  (PDF, p. 22) between 2006 and 2010, according to the United Nations Development Program (UNDP). The rate of Type 2 diabetes in 2010 was 15.1%, according to the UNDP; today, according to the BBC, nearly 40% of the population is thought to suffer from the disease—which can be treated or eliminated, in some cases, simply by losing weight.