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The early days

In the late 1940s and early 1950s the South Pacific Commission (SPC) had a food composition programme under the direction of a biochemist, F.E. Peters and a nutritionist, Sheila Malcolm. Studies were carried out on the nutrient content of commonly eaten Pacific Island foods, with most work being done on the coconut and breastmilk. Later in this project, amino acid profiles of root crops and green leaves were studied, and it was concluded that a mixed diet of yams, taro or sweet potato with green leaves would supply a balance of amino acids necessary for an adequate diet. The importance of this work was not realized by governments, and food composition work at the SPC laboratory ceased in 1957.

The rise of non-communicable diseases in the Pacific

In the late 1970s, there was increasing concern at the appearance of non-communicable diseases (NCD), such as diabetes and heart diseases, in many countries in the Pacific. This resulted in funding being provided to SPC by the United Nations Development Programme in 1981 to bring together all the various survey results and information throughout the Pacific Islands’ region on the prevalence and causes of non-communicable diseases. This culminated in the publication still so well known and utilized today: The effect of urbanisation and western diet on the health of Pacific Island populations, SPC Technical Paper 186.

A meeting was convened at the end of 1981 to discuss the findings of this study and from this meeting came the following recommendations, which related to food analysis work:

Recommendation No. 25

The South Pacific Commission organise a technical workshop to gather, review and make available existing (but often unpublished) data on the nutrient composition of Pacific foods, and make recommendations concerning needs for additional food composition data in the region.

Recommendation No. 26

The South Pacific Commission investigate the facilities available in the region for food nutrient and food contaminant analysis with the aim of upgrading existing facilities to ensure that a prompt food analysis service is available within the region.

Working group on food composition tables

A working group on food composition tables was subsequently convened in November 1982. It suggested that Food composition tables for use in the South Pacific be reprinted, as it was the most suitable set of tables available at that time for the Pacific. The tables had been developed in the 1960s by the Nutrition Department of the Fiji School of Medicine using the best available data from the United Kingdom, the United States of America, Australia and Latin America. These tables were reprinted by the SPC in 1983. They have been widely used throughout the Pacific for 30 years.

The meeting also recommended the establishment of a nutrient database of local and imported food consumed in the Pacific. It further proposed that new data on local and imported foods be produced, and that, where possible, this analytical work should be done in the Pacific.

Endorsement for these recommendations came from meetings of the Pacific Islands’ Permanent Heads of Health Services in 1983 and the Permanent Heads of Agriculture and Livestock in 1984. This resulted in the project entitled “Development of food composition tables in the Pacific Region” which was included in the SPC’s nutrition work programme in 1985.

The first technical workshop on food composition tables

Following this meeting, SPC organized the first technical workshop on Pacific food composition tables, which was held at the then Institute of Natural Resources (now the Institute of Applied Sciences) of the University of the South Pacific in Fiji, Suva, in February 1986. Representatives from the following four

Pacific analytical laboratories attended: the Institute of Natural Resources, the University of the South Pacific, Fiji; Department of Primary Industry, Papua New Guinea; National Analytical Laboratory, University of Technology, Lae, Papua New Guinea; and the Institute of Medical Research, Madang, Papua New Guinea. Other participants included several nutritionists, agriculturalists, home economists and food technologists from around the region, members of the Australian and New Zealand food composition programme and other resource people.

Pacific Island food composition programme

Comprehensive plans were made at this workshop for the development of a food database and for new food analyses, with a list of priority foods for analysis and priority analytes determined. Funding was provided by USAID, which made possible the recruiting of the first food composition coordinator, Dr Heather Greenfield, who began the work of establishing the project, named the Pacific Island food composition programme (PIFCP).

Published data on food analyses of Pacific Island food were collected and a survey of user needs was dispatched around the region. Since root crops such as sweet potatoes, taros and yams had been comprehensively analysed by Bradbury and Holloway (1988), it was decided to concentrate new analytical work on the green leaves. Under the guidance of the second food composition coordinator, John Bailey, the PIFCP collaborating laboratories in Lae, Port Moresby and Suva validated their analytical methods in 1990 and by early 1991 had completed the analysis of 19 commonly eaten, green, leafy vegetables.

Unfortunately, funding for new food analyses and for the food composition coordinator post was not available after 1991. Since that time the project has focused on further development of the database and production of the new food tables, using data from a large number of sources. INFOODS donated a computer for the work in 1992. Astrong collaborative effort between the SPC nutrition programme and the New Zealand Institute for Crop and Food Research during 1993-94 resulted in the publication of the first edition of the tables and the preparation of dietary assessment software containing the Pacific Island database.


INFOODS had established a network of Regional Data Centres around the world. OCEANIAFOODS was one, established in May 1987. The membership included Australia, New Zealand, Fiji, Papua New Guinea, and the Secretariat of the Pacific Community (formerly the South Pacific Commission) (SPC) representing 22 small island countries. The OCEANIAFOODS network brought the countries in the region together approximately every two years to share developments in data generation, compilation and dissemination, and to offer assistance to the developing Pacific Island countries. Biennial meetings were held and a programme of collaborative work was developed.

The need for more food analytical work

At the time of the publication of the first edition of the tables in 1994 it was recognized that there were still important gaps in the data, in particular for uncultivated nuts and fruits, breadfruit dishes, pandanus and coconut products, Pacific Island cooked dishes, shellfish and fish.

A review of the progress of the Pacific food composition programme at the 1991 OCEANIA FOODS meeting had recommended that the New Zealand programme assist SPC in the finalization of the new food tables and that Australian aid be sought to continue the food analysis programme at the Institute of Applied Sciences at the University of the South Pacific, which had shown a consistent ability and interest in food nutrient analysis. On the basis of this a funding proposal was prepared.

The USP - ACIAR - AGAL - ORSTOM - SPC food analysis project

The project “Nutrient composition of some Pacific Islands food crops and bushfoods” was a joint project of the University of the South Pacific (USP), the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research (ACIAR), the Australian Government Analytical Laboratory (AGAL), the French Institute of Scientific Research for Cooperative Development (ORSTOM) and the SPC. It commenced in early 1994 and aimed to help fill the gaps in the food tables by undertaking analyses on important uncultivated nuts and fruits for which no reliable data existed.

Many of these fruits and nuts are eaten as snacks, with some of the nuts also used in traditional cooked dishes, adding greatly to the protein and general nutritional value of the dish. The potential existed for commercialization of several of these fruits and nuts, with the ngali or pili nut already having been developed commercially in Solomon Islands. As well as generating income, more nutritious food has been made available to the local market by the commercialization of this nut.

Apart from uncultivated fruits and nuts, it was planned that the project would analyse commonly eaten Pacific Island mixed cooked dishes, important atoll foods, and other foods not well covered in the first edition of the tables.

The analytical methods used were also upgraded at USP as part of the project and the quality assurance programme enhanced. Annual meetings were held with Australian and USP scientists to monitor progress. The results were published in a booklet Pacific Islands foods: description and nutrient composition of 78 local foods. Asecond volume based on postgraduate research and some commercial samples was published in 2001.

The FAO project “Strengthening Food Analytical Capabilities in the Pacific Region”

In the mid-1990s, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations had resumed its interest in food composition work and development of regional food composition databases. Towards the end of the ACIAR project, discussions were held with FAO on a possible follow-up project to continue food composition work and expand the work to food contaminants.

After much discussion a proposal was prepared in April 1999 under the Technical Cooperation among Developing Countries programme of FAO. After extensive review this was finalized and approved for April 2002 - August 2004 as a regional project in Fiji, Vanuatu, Solomon Islands, Samoa and Tonga. The aims were to improve food security and food quality and safety in Pacific Island countries, and enhance trade by strengthening food composition and contaminant data generation, compilation and dissemination, achieving international accreditation for laboratories and upgrading the skills base of technical personnel.

The following were some of the specific tasks of the project:

The tables that follow are the output of this FAO project.

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