Palm oil labels to inform Aussie shoppers

By Beau Gamble 30 June 2011
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New labelling laws could help reduce the deforestation threatening orangutans and Sumatran tigers.

EXPLICIT LABELS ON FOODS that contain palm oil may soon help Australian shoppers buy more eco-friendly products.

Last week, the Australian Senate passed a bill requiring that palm oil in food products be explicitly labelled to help consumers make more informed choices. The bill still needs to go before the House of Representatives before it comes into effect, but this is likely to happen in coming months.

The United Nations (UN) has identified palm oil plantations as the leading cause of deforestation in Malaysia and Indonesia, placing the endangered orangutan (Pongo abelii), Sumatran tiger (Panthera tigris sumatrae) and many other iconic species at risk. The UN reports that more than 80 per cent of the orangutan’s habitat has been lost and the species could be extinct in the wild within 20 years – about 6600 remain in the wild.

Jonathon Larkin of the World Wildlife Fund Australia (WWF) told Australian Geographic that about 50 per cent of packaged foods in supermarkets, such as bread and biscuits, contain palm oil. “At the moment palm oil is just labelled as ‘vegetable oil’, which doesn’t do much justice for Australian shoppers,” says Jonathon. “It’s impossible to know whether or not the product you’re buying contains palm oil.”

What is sustainable?

But the WWF isn’t advocating for a complete boycott of palm oil. “We
don’t want consumers to feel like they have to avoid it,” says Jonathon.
“What we want is for all palm oil to be grown in a sustainable way.”

Under criteria laid down by the international Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil, palm oil production can be certified as sustainable if it is transparent, complies with local, national and international regulations, and is economically viable in the long-term, among other things.

“Australia currently imports around 130,000 tonnes of palm oil each year,” says Jonathon. “Worldwide production of certified sustainable palm oil is about 1.5 million tonnes – more than enough to make sure all of Australia’s palm oil usage could be sustainable.”

Australian supermarket giants Coles and Woolworths have already committed to using palm oil more sustainably, promising to completely cut uncertified palm oil from their private-label products by 2015.

For and against

An alliance between the Federal Coalition, the Greens and independent senator Nick Xenophon supports the legislation. But the Australian Food and Grocery Council (AFGC) strongly opposes the bill, warning that it could cost the Australian food industry “hundreds of millions of dollars and jobs”.

“The cost of changing a single label will be between $10,000 and $19,000 per product,” says the AFGC in a statement. “From a health perspective, it’s more important for consumers to know how much saturated fat is in a product rather than where the saturated fat is sourced.”

Rachel Lowry, Director of Wildlife Conservation and Science at Zoos Victoria, believes palm oil labels would “showcase our nation’s attempt to weaken our link to this issue and inspire others to do the same.”

“Even the passionate and informed Australian cannot take action without adequate labelling,” says Rachel. “We have to start somewhere, and it has to start with labelling.”

Jonathon of WWF adds the label laws would show the international community that Australia is “helping to protect some of the most pristine rainforests on the planet”.

“Palm oil is a major contributor to deforestation, particularly in tropical areas, where palms grow best,” he says. “The problem is that those same areas are home to some of the best rainforests on Earth…This legislation would really help to put Australia at the head of the game.”