Mandatory labelling of palm oil will mislead consumers

15 August 2016

Mandatory labelling of palm oil is likely to mislead consumers by implying that the world’s most sustainable vegetable oil crop is a toxic ingredient that is best avoided, says Katherine Rich. She was responding to a report that New Zealand's four largest zoos have joined a lobbying effort to force food companies to reveal whether they use palm oil.

The NZ Herald reports that government representatives are expected to decide in November whether its inclusion in any products sold in New Zealand and Australia must be clearly labelled. It reported that there are expectations that FSANZ will vote for mandatory labelling, following the US, Canada and the European Union.

But Food Safety Minister Jo Goodhew is quoted as saying the Government would "consider the advice" of the technical report ahead of the meeting with nine Australian Ministers.

Katherine Rich says palm oil is not a toxic ingredient that should be avoided.

“When grown on appropriate farming land, palm oil is the most environmentally sustainable, cost-effective and versatile vegetable oil available in the world today.

“It has the highest yield of any oil seed crop. More oil is produced with less land than any other crop. Other vegetable oils can require up to 10 times the land to produce the same amount of oil.”

Katherine Rich says food labelling is increasingly being used as “an easy battleground for issues as diverse as deforestation, animal welfare, obesity and human rights”.

“As a country we need to be realistic about what can and can’t be solved by a product label. FGC supports the stance of Food Standards Australia New Zealand and the New Zealand Food Safety Authority that labelling should be used for issues relating to health and safety. From a health perspective, it’s more important for consumers to know how much saturated fat is contained in a product rather than what that fat might be.

“FGC doesn’t support mandatory labelling of specific vegetable oils.

“It’s an issue of practicality. Palm oil is one of more than 70 vegetable oils used in food production for a variety of reasons. Before regulators make detailed listing compulsory there has to be a good health or safety reason for doing so.

“Calls for palm oil labels haven’t been thought through. Labels will only indicate whether palm oil is used, but will say nothing about where the oil was sourced or whether sustainable production practices were employed.

“The palm oil may be sustainably produced or come from one of over 40 different countries many of which will not face the same environmental concerns. A label which says “contains palm oil” leaves interested shoppers none the wiser.”

FGC’s comments have been picked by the influential Asian food website Food Navigator-Asia. Read their story here.