19 Mar 2018

Tudei issue revisits reputational risk for Vanuatu kava industry

7:10 pm on 19 March 2018

There are fears that changing the emphasis on quality for kava exports from Vanuatu could again threaten the reputation of the country's prize crop.

Vanuatu's kava industry is in ongoing discussions on the merits of the "tudei" variety of kava, so-called because of its renown groggy effects on drinkers lasting for two days after consumption.

While the country has a policy of promoting only the "noble" kava variety which is widely considered to be of higher quality, some kava producers push for restrictions on the export of tudei to be eased.

Vanuatu Kava Root Powder

Vanuatu Kava Root Powder Photo: Kalm with Kava

A Vanuatu kava industry meeting was held this month to discuss the tudei issue.

Sensitivity around the meeting was evident in theexclusion of local journalists from covering the event.

The meeting resolved that there should be a review of all scientific literature on tudei, but reaffirmed that Vanuatu's policy of promoting only the so-called "noble" variety would continue.

A kava exporter and chairman of the Vanuatu Kava Industry Association, Michael Louze, said the focus on noble kava makes sense because this quality was what importers wanted.

"The point about the tudei, maybe in the future there will be a market for some components. It's not for the drinking market... but for the same pharmaceutical market that we have now, for the properties.

"Right now the market is not there," Mr Louze explained, "but we should not close the door to it. We should study it more. That was the positive conclusion about this meeting."

Kava wholesale premises in Vanuatu.

Kava wholesale premises in Vanuatu. Photo: South Seas Commodities

However an increasing amount of tudei kava is reportedly being cultivated by Vanuatu farmers - part of the appeal is that it's a lot quicker to grow than noble kava.

A vocal proponent of tudei and leading kava exporter, Peter Colmar, claimed foreign scientists had misled people into believing that the tudei variety posed a health risk.

"I want to know where all these dead people are. We have a huge diabetes problem (in Vanuatu) in the hospitals, we don't have people with liver problems. If this thing was deadly like they say, where are all these dead people, where are all these people with liver damage? What I'm saying is, hey, let us export both (varieties)."

Currently, ni-Vanuatu can export tudei kava as long as it is specifically requested by an importer. Some industry people say tudei is being exported flagrantly anyway, due to poor enforcement of the Vanuatu Kava Act.

However, those in charge of the industry in Vanuatu are at pains to stress the importance of high quality kava being the main product exported.

"We still have the noble policy that means we know the noble are first and are the ones we currently should be exporting and are exporting; and when we are exporting the kava is tested to make sure we don't export tudei or wild kava, " explained Mr Louze.

"Currently all the production and promotion is on the noble kava. That's what defines the quality. That's what the industry and the importers want. That's what we should plant, and what we should export at this stage.

While insisting he was not a conspiracy theorist, Mr Colmar said he was sure there was a conspiracy against tudei, including a campaign to repress the anti-cancer properties of this kava.

Mr Colmar claimed a majority of kava farmers in Vanuatu were planting tudei and were being denied the chance to commercialise their crop, due to findings from leading kava scientists.

"And they say that our grandfathers were drinking this, we've been drinking this, what are you talking about? They can't understand what this stupid government thing is... the Vanuatu Kava Act."

Reputation risk

Others in the industry fear that dilluting the focus on quality kava exports will risk a repeat of the German-initiated European Union ban on kava imports in 2002.

Based around concerns about liver toxicity from kava, the ban was subsequently overturned, but the reputational damage to Vanuatu kava was enduring.

A German scientist and kava researcher, Dr Mathias Schmidt, worked for years with Vanuatu representatives to get the Europe ban lifted.

"If even the small quantities that came to Europe back in 2000, from 1998 to 2000, caused that problem, well just wait for it," he warned.

"If another case report happens in the United States for example where they have huge quantities of tudei kava, even now. Well that's just calling for the next disaster."

Growth in the American kava market has brought this issue to a head. A couple of years ago, there were only around fifty kava bars in the US. Now there's estimated to be over a hundred and fifty.

Mike Munsell runs Kalm with Kava, one of the biggest US importers of kava from the Pacific. According to him, he imported noble kava because quality was paramount for his company's products.

"For our personal business, we will always test kava whether whatever lies in place in Vanuatu, and we will ensure that we only sell noble cultivars. I believe that creates the best user experience."

A noble variety kava blend packaged and ready for export by Forney Enterprise into the US market.

A noble variety kava blend packaged and ready for export by Forney Enterprise into the US market. Photo: Supplied/ Joshua Fordham

Mr Munsell said Vanuatu should tread carefully on the matter.

"Since the enactment of the Vanuatu Kava Act in 2002 we haven't experienced those same issues that were back in the late 90s. So it seems that that took care of the problem. And so if that were to be reversed, it would be be premature, it needs to be carefully analysed and better understood why that took care of the issue before anything is changed."

Vanuatu remains the largest exporter of kava. But other countries in the region like Samoa, Tonga and Fiji are also in the game and gaining ground - these countries don't sell tudei.

It's for that reason that Dr Schmidt is no longer advocating for Europeans to buy kava from Vanuatu.

For him, Vanuatu should veer away from tudei, which he hardly considers to be kava. He played a key role in developing specifications on kava for drug regulation bodies. These specifications, he argued, should be adhered to for Vanuatu's own good.

"We defined a specification for kava because we are under pressure from the German government who do not want, absolutely do not want, kava back on the market because they would have to admit that they made an error back in 2002. So we need to be super perfect on the level of the quality."

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Photo: RNZ / Daniela Maoate-Cox

Being proactive

While kava prices are currently high, there's no guarantee they will stay that way.

Vanuatu's government is being proactive about trying to make the most of its crop in international markets, and is pushing again for Australia to lift its ban on kava imports.

The review on the available information about tudei will take months, if not years, to complete, but the industry sounds hopeful it will help clarify the direction Vanuatu needs to take on its exports. In the meanwhile, in some quarters, kava's international reputation is actually on the up.

Kava is now being linked to efforts to counter mental health problems and chronic anxiety. Kava has also been found in at least one study to inhibit the growth of cancer cells.

There remains much unknown about what caused the problems around kava's reputation in Germany in the late 1990s.

"A considerable amount of research has been done, and the German ban was lifted due to a lot of that research," said Mike Munsell.

"And what we do know is that FKB (Flavokawain B) is in higher concentrations in a lot of tudei cultivars. And that is is a Hepatoxic (as in affecting the liver) substance.

A Kava plant.

A Kava plant. Photo: Supplied/ Len Garae

For his part, Peter Colmar said he always wanted a review of the data on tudei. But he was mistrustful of outsiders conducting the review, suggesting that Australian and Fijian personnel involved would be biased against tudei kava from the outset.

The tudei kava issue was a complex situation which Michael Louze said the industry was trying to improve with the involvement of all stakeholders.

"It's not about new research at this stage," he explained. "It's just about looking into the existing scientific data, what is existing, and compiling that together."

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