Review: Cheap Meat

Review of

Cheap Meat:  Flap Food Nations in the Pacific Island

By Deborah Gewertz and Frederick Errington
University of California Press

Reviewed By
Amanda S. Green
Oregon State University


Deborah Gewertz and Frederick Errington classify recent food literature along two axes: those that reveal the unjust nature of the global industrial food system and those that reveal the connection between the industrial food system and lifestyle-related diseases such as obesity and diabetes. Their own contribution to food studies, Cheap Meat, falls provocatively in between these axes. The authors explore the trade in flaps, the fatty meats of lamb or mutton, that are produced and processed in Australia and New Zealand and largely consumed in the Pacific Island nations of Tonga, Papua New Guinea, and Fiji. They examine the effects this trade has on health, economies, and cultural practices as well as the reasons why it has become so controversial. Most importantly, the authors find that the trade in these fatty meats now operates as a powerful symbol of the continuing relations of inequality between first world nations who refuse to eat flaps and third world nations who eat flaps. The rejection or acceptance of flaps now problematically marks two different categories of people—First and Third world, healthy and unhealthy, white and brown.

Gewertz and Errington’s research is ambitious and multi-sited. They look in depth at three areas of flaps: Australia and New Zealand mutton producers and traders, Papua New Guinea’s flap vendors and consumers, and Fiji and Tonga’s politicians and health advocates. In Chapters 2 and 3, the authors interview sheep producers, processors and traders. A key moment occurred for traders (and consequently consumers) when the industry shifted from a trade in whole carcasses to a trade in cuts of meat that could be distributed to places of higher demand. For example, traders can move high end cuts like lamb legs to the EU while cheap cuts like flaps are shipped to the Pacific Islands. The authors effectively bring home this point by observing and describing the slaughter of sheep and lamb at three New Zealand processing plants. They note that when a carcass is taken apart, flaps are the only cut of meat that is not further processed. Instead, flaps are treated as a byproduct. The unprocessed state of flaps leaves them marked as First World leftovers. Unlike other cuts of meat, Gewertz and Errington argue, the very visceral nature of flaps actually reminds their eaters of the slaughter of the animal, the fat of the animal that becomes the fat of Pacific Islanders, and the inequalities between those who refuse and those who accept flaps.

In Chapter 3, Gewertz and Errington give a complex and humanist portrayal of the men who trade flaps to Pacific Island nations. In interviews, meat traders explained to the authors how they sold to a highly specialized and volatile market which required strategy, charm, persistence, and knowledge. Rather than dismissing the work of these traders, Gewertz and Errington artfully portray traders as cultural brokers; they are “specialists who can articulate cuts of meat with local desires and economic circumstances” (p. 69). Of course, traders were initially suspicious of the authors’ interest in flaps. They wanted to know if their research was “political” in nature. Gewertz and Errington are astonishingly transparent with readers about such negotiations with research participants. Their openness about their research methods can certainly be utilized to instruct beginning ethnographers on how to conduct research that challenges and remains honest to research participants and researcher goals.

The strongest ethnographic description emerges in Chapters 4 and 5 on Papua New Guinea, the site of Gewertz and Errington’s previous 30 years of research. The authors discover that people react ambivalently, with smiles and shrugs, when they discuss flaps with them. It is here that the controversial nature of flaps really emerges: they are known to Papua New Guineans as the discarded trash of first world citizens but they still treasure flaps for their nutritional and symbolic value. From interviews with almost 300 men and women, the authors surmise that almost all Papua New Guineans would eat flaps but with different levels of reservation. Some of these reservations are based on perception of the healthfulness, convenience, and ceremonial value of flaps. If the authors can expand this level of ethnographic detail to Fiji and Tonga, Cheap Meat would gain both depth and stronger policy recommendations.

To conclude Cheap Meat, Fiji’s 2000 ban on flaps is discussed. The ban raises questions such as how and if flaps should be managed, by whom, and for whom. Quite obviously, Fiji’s ban on flaps flies in the face of neoliberal WTO policies that rely on the logic of free trade and unregulated markets. Furthermore, it challenges the “politics of personal choice” which presupposes all people should be able to make the (correct) choice without regard to context. Gewertz and Errington cautiously applaud Fiji for its defiant move: the Fijian government has pursued “an act of collective responsibility for a collective problem” (p. 133) which demonstrated the government’s willingness to act on behalf of its citizens. Yet, Fiji has still failed to improve its citizens’ health.

Cheap Meat exposes a highly complex issue. Gewertz and Errington adeptly avoid writing off flaps, their producers, traders, and consumers, as good or bad, healthful or unhealthful, colonialist or anticolonialist. Cheap Meat does not simplify flaps; they remain ambiguous because they are in between. They are between the cheap meat of fast food joints and the cheap meats of treasured regional cuisines. They also remain ambiguous as producers, traders, consumers, and government officials assign different meanings to flaps. For these reasons, the authors argue that flaps have emerged as a site of national anxiety over relations of political and economic inequality and health disparities. Given the complexity of the flap trade, it may be difficult to come to a policy recommendation. Yet the authors capably lead readers to conclude that the Pacific Island nations should be given latitude to regulate flaps. That latitude should be given not only because these nations face health crises that must be addressed, but also because they must be enabled to exercise a national will to protect their citizens.

The book is highly accessible for undergraduate students especially in cultural anthropology, food studies, and public health. It includes material on food and trade regulations, the cultural and symbolic preparation and consumption of food, and the effects of food and food related policies on health. While the research deals with a complex commodity, the narrative Gewertz and Errington weave remains refreshingly personal and clear. For graduate students in food and culture studies, the book offers much material that begs to be read alongside and analyzed via more theoretical pieces.

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