Oiling the Label
What’s been the impact of the EU’s labelling law for palm oil, asks Simon Birch.
Are you a supermarket checkout campaigner? Do you assiduously read all the small print on the packaging of everything from margarine spread to chocolate?
If you do then you’ll have noticed that recently more and more food companies are including palm oil as a listed ingredient.
So what’s going on then?
Well this is all down to the sterling work of the EU (don’t worry this isn’t another Brexit rant).
Two years ago this December the EU introduced a new law requiring all food companies to specify on the label of products which type of vegetable oil has been used.
In the past food companies could get away from declaring palm oil as an ingredient by sneakliy hiding it under the general term of ‘vegetable oil’. But no more.
What is palm oil?
As most Ethical Consumer readers will know, palm oil is one of the most controversial natural products in the world.
Found in around 50% of supermarket products from salad dressing to shampoo, the production of palm oil often involves the destruction of tropical rainforests in places such as south east Asia and equatorial Africa.
This is something which decimates biodiversity and threatens the livelihoods of indigenous people. Not good.
Victory for campaigners
For campaigners the decision by the EU to force food companies to be transparent and open about what goes into their products was a major victory as Helen Buckland, Director of the Sumatran Orangutan Society explains:
“Previously hidden behind the generic term ‘vegetable oil’ on ingredients lists, most consumers were unaware of the link between their weekly shop and the expansion of palm oil plantations into lowland rainforests,” says Buckland.
“This threatens many iconic species, including orangutans, tigers and rhinos in south east Asia and, as plantations expand into Africa, gorillas, chimpanzees and African forest elephants.”
Buckland believes that the change is important as it will help level the playing field on supermarket shelves:
“Some companies were already labelling their products as containing palm oil and that the palm oil was sustainably sourced, but they were on the shelf next to products that were also using palm oil but weren’t declaring it.”
Two years on and Buckland believes that the initiative is an important milestone in helping to reduce palm oil’s negative impact and encouraging the use of more sustainably sourced palm oil:
“The EU initiative has increased pressure on food companies to clean up their supply chains. Conversations we have had with some major European consumer goods manufacturers suggest that their commitments to eliminating conflict palm oil have been accelerated as a result”.
However others don’t share Buckland’s optimism.
“I don’t think there’s any evidence one way or the other that the new law has helped cut rates of deforestation and to be honest it probably hasn’t made much impact,” admits Simon Counsell, executive director of the Rainforest Foundation UK.
The labelling of palm oil now also makes it much easier for shoppers to avoid palm oil altogether.
An online Guardian poll taken when the EU law was introduced two years ago found that almost 90% of shoppers would choose to avoid food products containing palm oil.
Boycotting food products containing palm oil is now something which Simon Counsell advocates:
“There are currently many doubts about the claims of sustainable palm oil.”
“So as long as those doubts persist the safer option is to avoid palm oil altogether.”
Buckland though rejects the boycott of products containing palm oil:
“We don’t support a boycott of palm oil as this is unlikely to have any positive impact on iconic species such as orangutans. A boycott would have unintended consequences and could in fact lead to the loss of more rainforest,”.
Ultimately the moves to save the rainforest must be made by governments and Buckland has been encouraged by the Indonesian authorities who recently announced an end to any new permits to develop new oil palm plantations or expand existing plantations.
“The Indonesian government wants to incentivise better practices and increase productivity on existing plantations so that the output of palm oil in Indonesia can continue to increase without needing to expand the area of land growing oil palms.”
For those wanting to boycott palm oil, check out our Palm Oil Free guide to mince pies, chocolate and biscuits