Is it time for the mandatory labelling of palm oil products?

29 August 2016

Written by: Katherine McLeod

The use of palm oil in Australian products is set to increase, and Australians won't be able to tell, writes Katherine McLeod.

By 2020, the use of palm oil in everyday products is expected to double as the world’s population increases.

Due to its cheap manufacturing costs, Australian supermarkets are including palm oil in many of their products.

However the use of palm oil is having a detrimental effect on the environment – leading to severe deforestation in South-East Asia and the endangerment of Sumatran orangutans.

Over 50 orangutans are dying weekly due to the severe deforestation of their habitats.

Land the size of 300 football fields is destroyed every hour in South East Asia, which leaves animals who inhabit these areas such as orangutans, tigers and elephants without homes.

Despite these adverse effects, it is possible for consumers to not know the origins of the food or products they are purchasing and consuming.

Under current regulations, Food Standards Australia New Zealand doesn’t require companies to specifically label palm oil. In most instances, these products are being labelled as ‘Vegetable oil’ instead.

This has prompted calls from the Melbourne Zoo and various environmental groups to bring mandatory palm oil labelling to Australia, due to the environmental concerns it poses.

Simon Chrismas of GreenPalm says although Australia does not have mandatory labelling, many countries overseas do due to public demand.

“Consumers [have] become more interested in what’s in their food, there’s an increasing pressure on retailers/brands to be transparent. This has resulted in tighter labelling regulation in some parts of the world and more detail on labels and packaging,” he tells upstart.

Palm oil is a common ingredient that can be found in many products, with estimates suggesting that around half of all packaged items found in Australian supermarkets could contain palm oil. These products can include margarine, breakfast cereals, shampoos, detergents, chocolates, breads and biscuits.

People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) Press Officer, Laura Weyman-Jones, says that palm oil is used because of its cheap manufacturing rate.

“Palm oil is commonly used because palms are the most efficient oil-producing plant, needing less than half the land required by other crops to produce the same amount of oil,” she tells upstart.

Food Standards Australia and New Zealand have previously rejected an application for the mandatory labelling of palm oil when used in food products, on the grounds of the application being based on environmental concerns.

Many food manufacturers are voluntarily labelling their products and some companies are members of the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil, which promotes the supply of palm oil sourced from eco‑friendly areas.

Weyman-Jones says that PETA encourages consumers to check the ingredients on products before purchasing.

“Thankfully, many companies are now taking action and demanding that their suppliers move towards using only deforestation-free palm oil,” she says.

“We encourage consumers to check labels on food and household products and, if they contain palm oil, to purchase products that have been certified by the Palm Oil Innovation Group, which ensures that no new deforestation has occurred to create palm plantations.”

In 2013, Woolworths came under fire for using palm oil as an ingredient in their hot cross buns, despite being a member of the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil.

It is possible for palm oil to be farmed sustainably if it is grown and managed on a plantation that meets the criteria for RSPO certification.

If the plantation has been established on land that did not previously contain significant biodiversity, wildlife habitat or other environmental values, it is considered an area capable of farming sustainable palm oil.

Chrismas says it is essential that land is sustainably sourced to ensure more forests aren’t destroyed.

“One of the main focuses for the industry is to make the land already being used for palm oil production as productive as possible, especially in developing palm nations in West Africa [and] South America,” he says.

“We need also to identify degraded land where palm oil can be grown, rather than destroying forests to create plantations.”

Woolworths were contacted for a statement regarding their stance on palm oil in their products, but declined to comment.

Katherine-McleodWeb_thumbKatherine McLeod is a third year journalism student at La Trobe University and a staff writer for upstart. Twitter: @kattt_mcleod