This is the tale of turkey tail — it's convoluted arrival, disappearance and highly anticipated return to the Pacific island the Republic of Samoa (not to be confused with American Samoa).
It's hard to pinpoint precisely when turkey tails started being imported into Samoa from the U.S. and when they became a favorite, affordable dish. Meat byproducts (Spam and fatty lamb cuts from New Zealand) started showing up sometime after World War II, and turkey tails came shortly thereafter.
One thing is clear, as Robert Siegel reports on All Things Considered: Many Samoans love them and miss the fat-laden cut of bird, banned for import in 2007.
Apaula Brown is originally from the Republic of Samoa but has lived in Washington, D.C., for many years. "We usually boil the turkey tails first to get rid of the fat and then we chop the turkey tails into pieces," she says. "If we want to cook it in a chop suey, we mix it with vegetables; it's delicious."
Samoa's ban on the import of turkey tails — and New Zealand mutton flaps, as well — in 2007 was the government's attempt to improve public health in a country that, like several other Pacific island nations, has among the highest rates of obesity, diabetes and hypertension in the world. According to a 2010 report from Samoa's Ministry of Health, 53 percent of Samoans are obese.
Sela Panapasa is an assistant research scientist at the University of Michigan's Institute for Social Research of Fijian and Tongan ancestry. She studies the worsening health problems of Pacific islanders and says turkey tails were a big part of the local diet because they were cheap and accessible until the ban came along.
"I know it may seem ironic but fish and native staple foods do cost more than turkey tails," she says.
Now, no one is saying that the fatty dish is the cause of Samoa's high rates of diabetes and hypertension — 23 percent and 21 percent, respectively, according to the World Health Organization. Other imported foods, genetic predispositions or an increasingly sedentary lifestyle could be to blame, too.
But as for the turkey tails, were American turkey producers just dumping their turkey tails on the island nation?
James Sumner, president of the U.S. Poultry and Egg Exporting Council, says his organization didn't realize they were exporting turkey tails to Samoa until he learned about the ban.
"It was obviously as a result of Samoan demand, not the attempt of the U.S. industry to force other countries to take our turkey tail products," he says. "We're not out trying to develop markets around the world for duck tongue, turkey tails or chicken feet."
The Samoans realized that the ban eventually had to go because banning imports of just one or two products violates World Trade Organization rules.
And since the late 1990s, the poor island nation of just under 200,000 people had been trying to join the WTO, hoping to improve its economy with a gross domestic product of less than $2 billion.
According to Aliioaiga Feturi Elisaia, Samoa's ambassador to the U.S. and the United Nations, the process of joining the WTO consumed the country for more than a decade. The final agreement to lift the ban on turkey tails was made in 2011. The actual lifting of the ban begins this week.
Here's the deal the Samoans struck: For the next two years they can add a 300 percent tariff to turkey tails, and then for one year, a 100 percent tariff. By 2016, Samoa is expected to have suppressed its people's appetite for turkey tails through public health education. After that, affordable turkey tails could, presumably, return.
But the ambassador, Brown and Panapassa all agree that before the arrival of cheap foreign foods few people were obese. They ate mostly fish and vegetables and lived more active lives.
AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.
ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
I'm Robert Siegel, and I am in the kitchen of NPR's swank new corporate headquarter in Washington, D.C., where we are about to sample a food item that I'd never heard of until a couple of months ago when I was in the Pacific island nation of Samoa for a day.
Kirk Wickworth(ph), who's one of the cooks here in our kitchen, is helping us carve. Thank you very much.
KIRK WICKWORTH: Yeah, glad to help.
SIEGEL: And pardon me for eating with my hands (unintelligible). Hmm. It's fatty. It's juicy. It's tasty. It's moist. These items that we've been carving up from a turkey are actually turkey tails or, as the Samoans would say...
APAULA BROWN: (Foreign language spoken)
SIEGEL: (Foreign language spoken)
BROWN: (Foreign language spoken) means tail. (Foreign language spoken) means turkey.
SIEGEL: That's Apaula Brown, who's originally from the Republic of Samoa but has lived in Washington for many years. And the reason we are talking turkey tails is they are banned in the Republic of Samoa, not to be confused with American Samoa. Since 2007, turkey tails have been forbidden food and very much missed.
Apaula Brown says they're very tasty when properly prepared.
BROWN: We usually boil the turkey tails first to get rid of the fat, and then we chop the turkey tails into pieces. If we want to cook it in a chop suey, we mix it with vegetables. It's delicious.
SIEGEL: Samoa's ban on the import of turkey tails - and, by the way, New Zealand mutton flaps as well - was an attempt to improve nutrition in a country that - like several other Pacific island nations - has rates of obesity, diabetes and hypertension that are among the highest in the world.
When we talk about turkey tails, we're talking about the part of the bird that supports the turkey's large rear feathers. The tail of a 25-pound tom turkey weighs in at about half a pound.
Melvin Inman owns Market Poultry at Washington, D.C.'s Eastern Market.
The story I'm doing is about turkey tails.
MELVIN INMAN: Oh, funny. Go ahead.
SIEGEL: Well, why did you react that way when I said turkey tail?
INMAN: That is a more sophisticated way of saying it now. Folks usually just ask for turkey butts.
SIEGEL: Turkey butts.
INMAN: Right. OK? Or the Pope's Nose.
SIEGEL: The Pope's Nose.
SIEGEL: You've got a bag full of them there.
INMAN: Oh, man, we sell loads of these things. Loads of them.
SIEGEL: But Melvin Inman admits that turkey tails aren't exactly health food.
INMAN: There's no doubt about it. Of all the part of a turkey you can buy, this is probably the worst, you know, nutritionally to you. Sometimes it's quite soggy. The exterior of it looks very mushy, fatty, and for the most part it is. There's not a very large part of it that really has any real meat on it.
SIEGEL: Here's a more severe judgment of the nutritional value of the turkey tail. Sela Panapasa is an assistant research scientist at the University of Michigan's Institute for Social Research. She studies the worsening health problems of Pacific islanders. For example, in the U.S., we count 36 percent of the population obese. In Samoa, it's 53 percent. And turkey tails were a big part of the Samoan diet.
SELA PANAPASA: There is no real nutritional value in turkey tails. It's mostly fat, but it's cheap and easily accessible.
SIEGEL: Samoans told us they used to eat turkey tails imported from the United States several times a week. So the import ban was a big story there.
If it's news to you, well, James Sumner, who's president of the U.S. Poultry and Egg Exporting Council, says that when the ban was announced, the U.S. export trade in turkey tails was news to him too.
JAMES SUMNER: In all honesty, we didn't even realize that we were exporting turkey tails to Samoa. It was obviously as a result of Samoan demand, not the attempt of the U.S. industry to force countries to take our turkey tail products.
SIEGEL: After World War II, imported meat off cuts found eager markets in the Pacific islands. Sela Panapasa, whose own ancestry is Fijian and Tongan, says fatty and tasty turkey tails from thousands of miles away were cheaper and easier to get than what islanders had been eating.
PANAPASA: I know it may seem ironic, but fish and our native staple foods do cost more than turkey tails.
SIEGEL: Were our turkey growers foisting cheap, unhealthy food on Samoa? Again, James Sumner of the Poultry and Egg Export Council.
SUMNER: Well, maybe the tail is to the turkey as the bacon is to the pig.
SIEGEL: The fattiest part.
SUMNER: It is one of the fattiest parts. But who would we be to deprive consumers of bacon?
SIEGEL: By the turkey tail, to be judgmental, one could say this is poultry junk food. This is almost eating pure fat and cholesterol.
SUMNER: Well, but I understand that it's not saturated fat if that's any consolation.
SIEGEL: As for the statement that turkey tails would most likely, if they didn't go to Polynesia, would go to pet food, a fair statement?
SUMNER: Probably a fair statement, except for the fact that most turkey tails remain intact on the whole turkey.
SIEGEL: That is, in this country.
Now, here was Samoa's problem. Banning imports the way they did, designating just one or two products, violates the rules of the World Trade Organization. And since the late 1990s, the poor island nation of just under 200,000 people had been trying to join the WTO, hoping to improve an economy with a gross domestic product of less than $2 billion. Just by way of comparison, Americans spend over $40 billion a year just on poultry. So the ban on turkey tails had to go. It expires this week.
Aliioaiga Feturi Elisaia is Samoa's ambassador to the United States, also to the United Nations. In fact, he's the only Samoan ambassador in the Western Hemisphere.
ALIIOAIGA FETURI ELISAIA: Our attitude is that as a global member of the international community, we have to try and be part of, you know, some of the multilateral agencies. And I think WTO also provided that opportunity for us. Though it's a fairly time-consuming exercise, especially for a small country, WTO also is a rule-based organization.
SIEGEL: For Samoa, the process of joining consumed over a decade. And part of the price of admission was acknowledging - at least in theory - the right of Samoans to import and consume turkey tails.
Here's the deal the Samoans struck with the body that governs world trade. For the next two years, they can add a 300-percent tariff to turkey tails, then for one year, a 100-percent tariff. By 2016, Samoa is expected to have suppressed its people's appetite for turkey tails through public health education. Affordable turkey tails could presumably return.
Is it fair for the world's trading nations to make Samoa take our exported turkey tails? Well, James Sumner of the U.S. poultry exporters, who had a small market in Samoa to preserve, a market he admits he had previously never heard of, says, why should governments tell consumers who want to have something that they can't have it?
SUMNER: They're the ones that usually come to us and tell us that we want a specific product. We're not out trying to develop markets around the world for duck, tongue, turkey tails or chicken feet.
SIEGEL: All of which have willing consumers in Asia or the Pacific.
Now, no one is saying that a couple of fatty dishes are the cause of Samoa's very high rate of noncommunicable diseases. There could be genetic predispositions or an increasingly sedentary lifestyle to blame too.
But the ambassador and Apaula Brown of Washington, D.C., and Sela Panapasa of the University of Michigan all agreed on this point. Look at family photos from a few decades back or at drawings of Samoans before the arrival of cheap foreign foods and you'll see people who were not obese. They were people who ate mostly fish and vegetables and lived more active lives. And they hadn't yet heard of eating turkey tails imported from America. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.