Senate passes palm oil labelling bill

Posted by Nicole Eckersley on 24th June 2011

Oil palm plantation on the slopes of Mt CameroonThe Senate has passed an amendment to the Food Act requiring that products containing palm oil be explicitly labelled, rather than described as ‘vegetable oil’.

The bill was passed by Coalition votes, and driven by Greens senator Rachael Siewert and Independent senator Nick Xenophon, both of whom have been vocal in their campaigns on the subject of palm oil.

Most of the world’s supply of palm oil, an extremely common ingredient in foods and food additives, is produced in Malaysia and Indonesia, where it is common practice to clearfell forest for plantations. Zoos Victoria reports that clearfelling results in the deaths of up to 50 orangutans per week.

The issue came to prominence last year, after a grisly ad from Greenpeace featured orangutan fingers in a Kit Kat wrapper.

Senator Xenophon also emphasised the consumer health aspect of the labelling, saying that Australians consume 10kg of palm oil a year without knowing it, and that while other products labelled as ‘vegetable oil’ contain as little as 2% saturated fat, palm oil is 50% saturated fat.

While the bill was rejected last week by a Senate committee, the alliance between the Opposition and the two senators was enough to pass the bill, which will likely pass in the House of Representatives if the Coalition-Greens alliance holds.

The Australian Food and Grocery Council decried the bill, saying the cost of changing a single label would be $10,000 to $19,000, and that food and grocery manufacturers were already under pressure from a ‘perfect storm’ of rising input costs.

“Food labels should be about ensuring consumers have important product information relating to health, nutrition and safety.  From a health perspective, it’s more important for consumers to know how much saturated fat is in a product rather than where the saturated fat is sourced,” said a release from the AFGC.

Malaysia also expressed “grave concern”, with the Malaysian Plantation Industries and Commodities Minister Tan Sri Bernard Dompok describing the bill as “discriminatory”.

Dompok said the bill seeks to encourage “the use of certified sustainable palm oil in order to promote the protection of wildlife habitat”.

“In this context, Malaysia is of the view that labeling palm oil purely from the perspective of sustainable production is discriminatory,” he told BERNAMA, the Malaysian National News Agency.

“In addition, competing vegetable oils are not required to be labeled.”

“It is clearly evident that facts and figures provided to the Senate Community Affairs Legislative Committee have been clearly ignored,” Dompok said.

“It is with great regret and disappointment that the Australian Senate has not accorded the due attention contributed by the oil palm industry in Malaysia and the sustainable practices adopted.”