Australia's delays on palm oil labelling 'hastening deforestation and orangutan deaths'


Environmentalists say mandatory labelling on food would limit demand for palm oil products and reduce destructive impact of plantations

Environmentalists have warned that Australia’s repeated delays on mandatory palm oil labelling are allowing deforestation and the destruction of orangutan habitats to continue unabated.

A proposal requiring palm oils to be specifically listed on food labels has now been under consideration by Australian and New Zealand ministers for more than five years.

The changes would prevent palm oil from being listed generically as “vegetable oil”, helping to inform consumers, limit demand for unsustainable palm oil products, and reduce the devastating impact that plantations have on rainforests and orangutan habitats, particularly in Indonesia and Malaysia.

The proposal again came before the Australian and New Zealand Ministerial Forum on Food Regulation late last month, but any decision was put off until at least April.

The Zoos Victoria chief executive officer, Jenny Gray, who is leading one of several concurrent palm oil campaigns, said she was confused about what additional information the ministerial council was seeking.

“We know we’re losing a thousand orangutans a year at the moment, so if we delay for another year, that’s more habitats destroyed, that’s more orangutans impacted by this,” Gray said.

“Longer delays, it really is unclear why we would want to do that when this is such an urgent issue,” she said.

The decision on palm oil labelling is wrapped up in a broader review of labelling laws, which began in 2009.

In 2011, an expert panel, led by former Labor health minister Neal Blewett, recommended that added sugars, oils or fats be individually labelled.

The ministerial forum made some progress at its meeting late last month, splitting its consideration of palm oil from other labelling changes.

Blewett told Guardian Australia he thought the process had been “fairly slow”, but said the labelling reforms were complex and presented plenty of issues for stakeholders to “fight over”.

“It’s been fairly slow, I’ve got to say. And I’ve not been following it closely because I’ve not been involved in the later debates,” he said.

He said he had recommended mandatory palm oil labelling on health grounds, because it was arguably not as healthy as other vegetable oils.

Deforestation and habitat destruction, he said, were environmental concerns and couldn’t really be considered in the labelling process.

“What you can do is get the market to work effectively so that companies will feel the need to, when they list vegetable oils, find it necessary to say that they haven’t got palm oils.”

The move faces opposition from the food industry, represented by the Australian Food and Grocery Council.

A council spokesman said many Australian companies had already begun using only sustainably sourced palm oil in their products.

He said that created a risk palm oil labelling would confuse consumers, who would be unable to tell sustainable and unsustainable products apart.

“The problem is there is low understanding of [certified sustainable palm oil] and consumers may confuse products that use responsibly sourced palm oil with those that don’t,” he said.

“We want to encourage companies to make the substantial investment in CSPO, but potentially lumping CSPO and non-CSPO products under one label may act as a disincentive.”

A survey commissioned by Zoos Victoria found 84% of Australians and 92% of New Zealand consumers supported the initiative.

The labelling of palm oil, which is high in saturated fat, is also supported on health grounds by the Australian Medical Association.

The European Union implemented specific oil labelling in 2014, and the United States and Canada have adopted similar measures.

The EU’s experience, according to Gray, showed that the costs to industry were negligible.

She said it may actually be more costly for companies to maintain two different labelling regimes; one for Australia and another for the EU or US.

“It’s easy to say we don’t want change because it would cost us, it would be really good to see how they would quantify that,” Gray said. “Then to give the consumer the choice, I think people are happy to pay a few extra cents to know that they’re buying a sustainable product.”


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