Trade

Choosing Between Free Trade and Public Health


After a 13-year wait, the South Pacific island nation of Samoa should win approval to join the World Trade Organization next month after dropping its ban on turkey tails. The WTO welcomed the nation, with a population of about 193,000 (a bit more than Knoxville, Tenn.) once Samoa agreed to end its ban on the fatty poultry scraps and impose import tariffs instead. That’s good news for U.S. turkey farmers, who will regain a market for the low-value trimmings that often end up in pet food, says Roman Grynberg, a trade official for the Pacific region until 2009.

For Samoa, one of the world’s most obese nations, the deal is a mixed blessing. “These are the contradictions we have to face—where health is compromised for the sake of trade and development,” says Palanitina Tupuimatagi Toelupe, Samoa’s director general of health. The U.S. food industry sees the issue differently. “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.

Samoan negotiators defend ending the ban as the only way to enjoy the increased trade and lowered costs of imports that WTO membership confers. “It filters down to the normal customer who will now have access to a wider variety of goods,” Namulauulu Sami Leota, president of the Chamber of Commerce, told the Samoa Observer newspaper. Reaching an agreement “was not an easy task,” added Namulauulu, who was involved in the final talks. Keith Rockwell, a spokesman for the WTO in Geneva, says the ban “was an issue on which Samoa took quite a tough line.”

Nauru, the world’s smallest republic and not yet a member of the WTO, introduced a 30 percent levy on imported sugar, candies, sodas, and flavored milk four years ago. Fiji, a member of the WTO since 1996, levied a 15 percent tax on cookies and candies in 2009.

A mix of culture, genetic susceptibility, and poor nutrition triggered the Pacific region’s obesity crisis. Female obesity rates in the region are alarming: Nauru (71 percent), Cook Islands (64 percent), Tonga (60 percent), Samoa (56 percent), and Palau, (51 percent), according to data from the World Health Organization. The same countries have the highest male obesity rates.

In 2008, at a WHO meeting in Manila, the Samoans asked for help countering multinationals’ food marketing strategies on the island. Stevenson J. Kuartei, Palau’s Health Minister, told the meeting that traditional diets, which protected against diabetes and high blood pressure, were threatened by globalization and free trade. Fiji also asked for help. U.S. delegates said prevention programs should be focused at the community or individual level. They lobbied to include a paragraph in the meeting’s final resolution “to encourage citizens to take responsibility for their own health,” according to the WHO’s record of the meeting.

At a meeting in Baku, Azerbaijan, in September, WHO Director-General Margaret Chan argued that willpower was not the issue. She blamed “a failure of political will at the highest level.” The Baku conclave preceded a United Nations summit in New York that was to produce a resolution for government action against physical inactivity and the use of harmful food ingredients, tobacco, and alcohol. The NCD Alliance, which represents more than 2,000 health advocacy groups, says delegates from the U.S. and other wealthy nations watered down the resolution and guidelines related to alcohol and tobacco use; consumption of salt, fatty, and sugary foods; and access to medicines. “We believe it was because of lobbying from the food, beverage, and the alcohol industry,” says Ann Keeling, the International Diabetes Federation’s chief executive officer and NCD Alliance chair.

The International Food & Beverage Alliance, formed in May 2008 by Kraft Foods (KFT), Coca-Cola (KO), General Mills (GIS), and five other multinationals, denies this, saying it has made a commitment to the WHO to promote good nutrition and advertise products to children responsibly.

Fiji and Tonga waged a fight similar to Samoa’s a decade ago when they tried to curb imports from New Zealand and Australia of an especially fatty cut of meat known as lamb or mutton flaps. Fiji banned flaps in 2000. When Tonga considered imposing a quota, New Zealand embarked on a campaign against it, says Timothy Gill, principal research fellow at the University of Sydney’s Boden Institute of Obesity, Nutrition, Exercise, and Eating Disorders. “We couldn’t work out why there was such a big thing about a relatively small segment of the market,” Gill says, adding that the New Zealanders pressed their case at a Commonwealth Health Ministers meeting in Christchurch in November 2001. “From the Prime Minister down, they were all there lobbying.”

“Trade bans on selected items are unlikely to be effective in addressing obesity and health issues,” a spokeswoman for Tim Groser, New Zealand’s Minister of Trade, said in an e-mail. Demand for affordable protein may spur a switch to other fatty meats that pose similar health issues, she added. By 2004 adult Tongans were eating an average of 1.3 pounds of the fatty sheep bellies a week, almost a fifth of their meat consumption, according to a 2010 study in the journal Food Policy. Tonga’s Cabinet gave up on the idea of restricting the imports because of concern the ban would hurt negotiations to enter the WTO, the journal authors say.

Tatafu Moeaki, Tonga’s Secretary for Labour, Commerce and Industries, says that after studying the issue in more detail, policymakers found that higher import duties on the flaps wouldn’t dent demand enough to improve public health. Moeaki says Tonga, which joined the WTO in 2005, is now preparing food standards that will determine which items fall outside a healthy range and warrant higher taxes to deter consumption. He says the importing nations have been left to figure out which foreign goods are detrimental to health—a “relatively expensive” process for a small country.

The bottom line: Obesity-riven South Pacific nations that restrict unhealthy imports face trade pressures from multinationals and their governments.

Gale is a reporter for Bloomberg News in Singapore.

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