Will anti-palm oil campaign succeed in Australia?

Posted by AFN Staff Writers on 10th August 2011

Pressure from anti-palm oil campaigners on Australia’s distributors and retailers continues. The campaigns concern how palm oil should be labelled as a food ingredient. The issue is now before a Federal Parliamentary Committee inquiry in the House of Representatives. Public submissions are being invited by the committee and are due by Monday 15 August 2011.

The House Economics Committee has commenced its inquiry into the Food Standards Amendment (Truth in Labelling – Palm Oil) Bill 2011 that would, if passed, require makers or distributors of foods with palm oil as an ingredient, to specify the oil as ‘palm oil’. A public hearing will be held on 26 August 2011.

Currently, palm oil can be labelled as vegetable oil. Much palm oil production occurs in Malaysia and Indonesia. Green activists claim that palm oil plantations are replacing rainforests and destroying the wildlife habitat of the Orang-utan. Others counter-argue that palm oil can be produced sustainably.

With the expansion of palm oil exports, Greenpeace and the World Wildlife Foundation are also linking consumption of palm oil with global warming and to displacement of indigenous peoples.

The Australian Senate passed the Bill in June 2011, shortly after a Senate Committee had conducted a separate inquiry into an earlier version of the Bill.

Key provisions of the legislation will require an amendment to the Australia New Zealand Food Standards Code, to be written by Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ), to require producers, manufacturers and distributors of food containing palm oil to list palm oil as an ingredient, regardless of the amount of palm oil involved; and for the Australian Consumer Law to be amended so information of the palm oil content, or the use of palm oil in producing a product (not limited to food), is relevant to whether a person has engaged in misleading conduct.

Joe Lederman, a food law expert of the FoodLegal firm says, “If manufacturers turned their back on palm oil altogether, the inclusion of more expensive oils would likely cause a backlash amongst price-sensitive consumers when the higher price of the more expensive oils translates into higher food prices.”

Earlier this year, a series of recommendations to improve food labelling law and policy in Australia and New Zealand were presented to the Federal, State and Territory Governments by Dr Neal Blewett, chair of the independent Review of Food Labelling Law and Policy.

One of the key recommendations in the report was that information on food labels be presented in a clear and comprehensible manner to enhance understanding across all levels of the population.

Opening the parliamentary inquiry, the Chair of the House Economics Committee, Australian Labor Party MP Craig Thomson MHR said, “The Committee recognises the community interest in the issues around the Bill such as preserving forests and the habitat of the Orang-utan.

“In addition to these community concerns, the Committee will also examine the Bill’s other aspects, such as trade, food quality, costs to business, and the rights of consumers.”

For more information on the inquiry and public hearing, visit www.aph.gov.au/economics. The deadline for submissions is 15 August 2011.