Cheap Meat: Flap Food Nations in the Pacific Islands

Stanley Ulijaszek finds much food for thought in a discussion of a meaty issue for developing nations

July 22, 2010

As good anthropologists, Deborah Gewertz and Frederick Errington have found the changing ways of the people they work with in Papua New Guinea to be good vehicles for thinking about human practice and behaviour in the larger world. This is a central tenet of this book, in which they consider the use and consumption of lamb flaps among the Chambri people of Papua New Guinea, locating them in the broader context of meat consumption in the Pacific Islands, Australia and New Zealand.

Starting from very low levels, per capita consumption of meat in the developing world has more than doubled since the 1960s. The taste for meat is great and its consumption (particularly among poor people, with some notable exceptions) rises when income increases. Higher classes or more monied sectors of industrialised societies can distinguish themselves by consuming only the most aesthetically desirable cuts and types of meat, whereas low-grade meat and animal tissue usually gets concocted into meat products such as burgers and sausages, and consumed to a much greater degree by the lower social and economic orders.

Lamb flaps are cuts of meat from the belly of the animal, and are both cheap and very fatty. The authors have previously written about human inequality in Papua New Guinea. In this book, they write about human inequality as it is represented through the unequal consumption of a domesticated animal. In the primary meat-producing nations of Australia and New Zealand, the leanest and most tender meat finds a ready market within-nation. The less-prime cuts are more likely to end up in burgers and sausages. But while these "barbecue nations" have a great desire to consume meats in their primary form as steaks, or in their secondary form as burgers and sausages, there's only so many of these a person can eat. And the poorest cuts of lamb do not make good burgers or sausages.

This book shows how the entry of the UK into the European Union in 1973 led to a reduction in import quotas for lamb from Britain's Commonwealth partners, thus creating a fatty meat surplus in New Zealand and Australia that had to be placed somewhere. That somewhere was the Pacific, where people traditionally value the consumption of meat highly, where fatty meat is particularly valued, and where low levels of income preclude the purchase of more prime cuts of meat. Thus a niche market was developed in which a commodity of low value in Australia and New Zealand could be traded in locations where it had high value, as in the Pacific Islands and Papua New Guinea.

Lamb flaps are not just food, the authors argue. They are used in Papua New Guinea in maintaining exchange relationships, often between urban and rural kin. They also feed ideas of modernity. As a new form of fast food, they are prepared and traded generally among poorer members of Papua New Guinean and Pacific Islands societies. The rub comes when the increasing levels of obesity and chronic disease among many Pacific groups are linked by many people there to the availability and consumption of this commodity. Flaps are a modernist staple, but the understanding among many people that they are also a waste product of white society sits uneasily. This has led to debate and, in the case of Fiji, a backlash that has resulted in a ban on the importation of flaps. Although there has been little resistance to this ban, concern about what poor urban people can afford to eat has risen, since a reversion to a pre-modern or traditional diet is impossible for most people.

For food economists, there is no problem: flaps get eaten when the price is right. But the human price of this consumption is important, and this engaging little book adds another narrative to the growing bank of literature on contemporary food systems and their human consequences.

Cheap Meat: Flap Food Nations in the Pacific Islands

By Deborah Gewertz and Frederick Errington
University of California Press, 224pp, £37.95 and £14.95
ISBN 9780520260924 and 260931
Published 5 February 2010

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