The food industry is not aware of any evidence that palm oil as a source of saturated fat is more detrimental to health than any other source, says Katherine Rich.

The NZ Herald asked the following questions:

  1. I understand the FGC opposes compulsory palm oil labelling. Why is this?
  2. Has any work been done on the estimated costs to NZ businesses of new labelling requirements?
  3. Some polls appear to show overwhelming support for clearer labelling in relation to palm oil. Are producers out of tune with consumers on this issue?
  4. How onerous are the existing labelling requirements for NZ producers? Ie What requirements are there on businesses already?

Katherine Rich responds:

Palm oil is used in many food and grocery products because of its versatility. When produced on appropriate farming land it’s the world’s most productive and sustainable oil crop, producing more oil per hectare than any other.

The FSANZ process usually focuses on food safety issues rather than issues which are really about food politics. I’ll be interested to see the outcome of the Ministerial Forum.

Food labelling can end up being a battleground for all sorts of non-safety issues such as deforestation, animal welfare, human rights and obesity and each year there are many calls to change labels. Many of these issues are of course worthy of discussion, but it’s unlikely that any of them will be solved by changing the small print on a paper label.

From a regulatory perspective, we have to think carefully about what gets mandated by law because there is only a limited amount of real estate on a pack, and a lot of other information can be provided to interested consumers in other ways e.g. websites, apps.

In terms of costs, FGC hasn’t done any estimate yet, but given that palm oil is used in a major proportion of food products, the costs to change millions of labels will be significant.

Then there’s the issue of our country relying on a significant volume of imported foods. Some companies might re-label for New Zealand, but many will not. The New Zealand economy is dependent on food trade so decision-makers also have to be mindful of the impact of local regulatory decisions. I am sure MFAT will be looking closely at any decision because both Malaysia and Indonesia could view a decision to specifically single out palm oil as being a non-tariff barrier to trade because the health arguments are weak. Both countries could quite easily point to New Zealand’s saturated-fat exports in the form of butter, cheese and meat and ask why we’re singling out their exports under the guise of health concerns, particularly when so much progress is being made to increase volumes of sustainable palm oil and what’s more that the food industry is switching to use it.

All the major food producers globally are focused on ensuring that palm oil used in production is appropriately sourced.

We’re not aware of any evidence that palm oil as a source of saturated fat is more detrimental to health than any other source. Coconut oil, the current fashionable oil, is much higher in saturated fat, for example. It’s far more important that consumers get good information about how much saturated fat is in a product, which is why the level of saturated fat is already clearly on food labels right now as a legal requirement. I’ve been surprised that some arguing for additional labelling because of palm oil’s saturated fat levels have not been aware that listing saturated fat levels is already a mandated requirement now.

The irony is that if anti-palm oil activists continue to promote the idea that all palm oil should be avoided, many manufacturers will continue to switch to using other oils which require more land to produce, meaning the environment is put under greater pressure.

The strength of the shared food laws between Australia and New Zealand through FSANZ is that it’s an evidence-based process. Whatever the final decision I hope it’s based on science and evidence.

Read the resulting NZ Herald article