Countering the arguments against palm oil labelling

Last weekend I spoke to a group of committed young people attending a workshop on palm oil hosted by the organisers of the Unmask Palm Oil campaign in Orana Wildlife Park.

Palm Oil workshop Orana Park

As highlighted in my previous blog post, palm oil has major environmental and social impacts. This heart wrenching photo of an orang-utan clinging to the last tree in a rainforest being cleared for a palm oil plantation highlights just how dire their plight is.

It is the widespread use  of palm oil in many of the everyday products we consume that drives this destruction of rainforests.

At the moment palm oil hides behind as many as  200 different names, including the generic label “vegetable oil” making it very difficult for consumers to know what they are purchasing.

At that workshop I countered some of the arguments that have been raised against mandatory palm oil labelling

The current status quo where companies can voluntarily declare palm oil in ingredients means that it is only honest companies that face consumer backlash, which is neither fair on these companies nor does it help protect rainforests as consumers often unknowingly just switch to another product containing palm oil.

Only a mandatory system will create a level playing field and allow consumers to choose products without palm oil.

Cost arguments are a red herring. Some people have argued that if companies switch to another ingredient the price of food will go up, therefore we should not expect companies to declare that their product contains palm oil.

This ignores the fact that if cost is the main factor driving consumers’ decision making then they will still purchase the cheapest products even if it contains palm oil.

The issue here is choice. Currently a consumer that wishes to priotise ethical concerns in their decision making and avoid products that doesn’t contain palm oil is not able to do so.

Companies update labels all the time. As long as you have a fair phase in time, a change in labelling standards need not impose excessive extra costs .

The other argument against palm oil labelling is “it will be unfair to people who use palm oil from sustainable sources”. The simple answer is that there is nothing to stop a company from declaring that information on the label, albeit with the proviso that under the new consumer law reform bill that any claims around sustainability must be substantiated.

11 Comments Posted

  1. Just had another thought, poor people eat 2 min noodles….2 min noodles are one of the biggest reasons for palm oil use……soooo you take all the money of rich NZs (defined by anyone who earns more than 40K per year).

    Give that money to the poor who will now eat better and buy less noodles.

    Supply \ Demand…palm oil not required.

  2. Problem with products like 2 min Noodles is the fact they have MSG and taste sooooooo good.

    The MSG makes all the other stuff seem irrelevant.

    Make the noodles less tasty….Ban MSG….

    Lets all start an anti MSG movement.

  3. I just think it’s dishonest that palm oil companies can hide under the label ‘vegetable oils’ knowing full well that their product is a contentious issue.

  4. Thanks for the response Mojo. I find the logic a bit odd however. If that was the case, a number of other consumer-adopted labelling would surely never have arisen either:

    1. Not tested on animals
    2. Free-range eggs

    While in the latter case free-range providers tend to be all-or-nothing and thus not subject to your issue regarding other products in the line, “Not tested on animals” is most certainly a consumer-driven labelling scheme in a comparable environment.

    Your statement:

    “The issue here is choice. Currently a consumer that wishes to priotise ethical concerns in their decision making and avoid products that doesn’t contain palm oil is not able to do so.”

    is untrue. A consumer that wishes to prioritise ethical concerns in their decision making has an entire internet stuffed full of people willing to advise on relevant ethical concerns with companies and products, Auckland Zoo included.

    I feel you’re going about this the wrong way. I don’t like the idea that we reach for the legislation hammer this early in the education process, the law is complex enough as it is.

  5. Good points Mojo. Fully agree consumers should be informed on exactly what they are purchasing and how it has been produced.

  6. I almost feel sorry for Cadbury who were crucified on the Palm oil alter when soooo many companies deserve far worse.

    The interesting thing is that the ‘backlash’ was agency engineered on behalf of Whittaker’s. They weren’t by any means a passive beneficiary of Cadbury’s screw up.

    All’s fair in love and product positioning I guess!

  7. Hi Richard. I have wondered the same myself. What I understand is that there are two main reasons why many companies do not want to declare a product palm oil free ( particularly large international companies).

    Firstly even if a particular product is palm oil free, they usually also produce a large range of other products that do contain palm oil and they dont want a backlash on these. Secondly the generic label “vegetable oils” allows them to switch to palm oil at any time without notifying consumers.

    This is the same reason why many larger companies oppose country of orgin labelling, they want the ability to subsitute a product from another country without notifying consumers who may be loyal to a product because it comes from a particular country.

  8. I almost feel sorry for Cadbury who were crucified on the Palm oil alter when soooo many companies deserve far worse. Given the way Cadbury got thrashed, it’s no wonder the others run for cover. It’s obvious they know they are pedaling damaged goods.
    Compulsory plain language labeling is a must. It should be an Australaisian accord.

  9. I’m confused, surely if ethical choice was a large driver for consumers to choose products made without Palm Oil, companies would be falling over themselves to release products marked “Contains no Palm Oil”. They can do that now without any supporting legislation.

    Is there a reason why they’re not doing that?

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