Food labelling and palm oil: What’s the issue?

In Australia and New Zealand it is almost impossible to know if palm oil is being used in consumer food products. More and more consumers are wanting to place ethically produced goods into their supermarket trolleys but the labelling of food products is often difficult to understand and doesn’t really incorporate environmental issues.

Under current regulations palm oil or its derivatives can be labelled on food packaging ingredient lists using generic terms like ‘vegetable oil’ or ‘vegetable emulsifier’. Because the words “Palm Oil” are rarely used when describing food ingredients, most consumers have no idea Palm Oil is actually in the food they are consuming (we’ve actually identified more than 200 alternative names for palm oil or ingredients sourced from or containing Palm Oil, but there are probably more).

Why should we identify Palm Oil on Food Labels?

Palm Oil has a number of unique qualities which make it a desirable ingredient in things like cakes, cookies, ice cream, packaged bread, breakfast cereal, peanut butter, pizza dough, chocolate and margarine. However Palm Oil also contains a high proportion of saturated fat. The Dietary Guidelines issued by both the Australian and New Zealand governments recommend we limit our intake of saturated fats. The Australian Heart Foundation includes Palm Oil on its list of unhealthy fats. But how can we reduce our consumption of saturated fats if we don’t know what exactly is in the food we buy? This is one of the key reasons why mandatory labelling of Palm Oil is so important.

Apart from the obvious health reasons, mandatory labelling of Palm Oil also puts pressure on growers of Palm Oil  and food producers to adopt sustainable practices right along the food chain. It also lets food manufacturers know that customers expect the products they buy to only contain ingredients produced ethically and without harming the environment.

What Has Being Done About Transparent Food Labelling?

As far back as 2006 an application was made to Food Standards Australia and New Zealand (FSANZ) requesting clearer identification of Palm Oil on food labels. An application was made due to concerns over the destruction of rainforests from the development of palm plantations and the resulting decimation of important species like orangutans in Borneo and Sumatra. The application was ultimately rejected because environmental issues are outside the jurisdiction of Food Standards Australia unlike its EU and US partners who have legislated on mandatory labelling already on their products.

Food labelling legislation in Australia and New Zealand only address issues like adequacy of supply, quality of ingredients or the safety of food.

“To attempt to use a domestic food standard aimed at regulating the quality and safety of domestic food supply to achieve international reform is a purpose that goes beyond the intent and scope of FSANZ Act.”

Though it’s beyond the scope of Food Safety Legislation to address environmental issues (even if they involve food products), government regulations do require the declaration of certain ingredients. To help consumers make healthier food choices, the total amount of saturated fat in a food must be displayed on the nutritional panel. It can certainly be argued that food labelling regulations currently in place do not enable consumers to make educated choices about the type of fats contained in the food they are purchasing. Especially when the Heart Foundation (as we said earlier) lists  Palm Oil among the bad fats.

Why is Palm Oil Still Not Clearly Displayed on Product Labels?

FSANZ initiated an independent Review of Food Labelling Law and Policy around 2011 and the results submitted to government. In November (2016) the government made their final decision which (sadly), was a bit circular. Basically the report ended with a recommendation for more research before any decision is made to change food labelling. The report did note a significant proportion of surveyed Australians who supported mandatory disclosure of Palm Oil usage on product labels. The issue was supposed to be considered again at the next Ministerial Forum on Food Regulation meeting but was postponed again still two years later now in 2019.

Is Anything Happening Now to Ensure Palm Oil is Disclosed on Product Labels?

“Being allowed to disguise palm oil as vegetable oil means that Australians aren’t able to make an informed choice for themselves and for their family about what they buy at the supermarket – both from a health and an environment perspective.”  

Ex-Senator Nick Xenophon

Independent Ex-Senator Nick Xenophon has introduced the Competition and Consumer Amendment (Truth in Labelling—Palm Oil) Bill 2017 to Parliament. The Bill calls for clearer labelling of food products containing Palm Oil for both consumer health and environmental reasons. The Bill is currently in it’s second reading and Parliamentary debate. The adoption of new laws and amendments can be very slow, and this Bill still needs to be considered in detail as well as undergo a third reading. There are no set timelines for these procedures but you can follow the progress of the Bill by clicking here.

“There have been some significant changes to food labelling laws made in this Parliament and I welcome those changes. However, more can be done and the discontent felt by the community at the lack of action taken on this issue is growing.

“Consumers have a right to know and this Bill gives them that right.”

This Bill is currently the best option for Palm Oil labelling on products, remembering that FSANZ only deal with issues relating to Food and Consumer Safety. So things are happening slowly but Senator Xenophon’s submission to parliament since his departure needs a new champion more support from the major parties and that’s where you can help too.

What Can I Do To Help?

To assist in ensuring that food labelling clearly indicates if Palm Oil has been used in a product, you can do the following things right now.

1.      Use products certified with the Orangutan Alliance seal.

2.      Get familiar with the list of alternative names for Palm Oil.

3.      Contact your local member of parliament and a senator or two in your state. Let them know how important transparent food labelling is for the health of you and your family as well as the environment.

4.      Stay informed by joining the Orangutan Alliance mailing list, liking our Facebook Page or following us on Instagram.

5.      Spread the word about our Certification Program and the ethical products that have been certified with the palm oil free seal.

The Power of Consumer Choice

We believe that consumers (yes that means you and all the other mums, dads, kids, friends, partners, husbands, wives, uncles, aunts, cousins and grandparents) are the key to enacting positive change in our world. By choosing to only buy products produced sustainably and containing only ethical ingredients we ensure the future of (not just the orangutans) but our planet generally and ultimately ourselves.


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