Dear Ms Kaye,

I am writing to you on behalf of Unmask Palm Oil regarding your position on clearer labelling of vegetable oils and to urge you to support recommendation 12 of the Labelling Logic report.

The Unmask Palm Oil campaign exists to support the introduction of clearer labelling of vegetable oils with a particular focus on palm oil.

As you may know, under current labelling laws in Australia and New Zealand, companies can label oils generically as vegetable oil without reference to the specific oils. This makes it impossible for consumers wishing to avoid certain oils, particularly palm oil.

An extension to our labelling laws would give consumers the right to choose and create a level playing field for companies.

The legislative and Governance Forum on Food Regulation

In 2009 the Legislative and Governance Forum on Food Regulation of which you are a part of (then under the name of the Australia and New Zealand Food Regulation Ministerial Council) commissioned an independent review of food labelling policy in Australasia. The review was chaired by former Australian Health Minister, Dr Neal Blewett and involved extensive public consultation with the panel receiving over 6,000 submissions.

Their final report, published in 2011 and titled ‘Labelling Logic’ had 61 recommendations with one of them being the clearer labelling of vegetable oils:

Recommendation 12 – Where sugars, fats or vegetable oils are added as separate ingredients in a food, the terms ‘added sugars’ and ‘added fats’ and/or ‘added vegetable oils’ be used in the ingredient list as the generic term, followed by a bracketed list (e.g., added sugars (fructose, glucose syrup, honey), added fats (palm oil, milk fat) or added vegetable oils (sunflower oil, palm oil);

The recommendations of the report will be decided upon by Ministers of the Legislative and Governance Forum including yourself in either December 2014 or May/June 2015. We ask for you to commit New Zealand support for this recommendation at the Forum.

The Unmask Palm Oil campaign supports this recommendation because:

  • This recommendation has come as part of a comprehensive review of food labelling with extensive public consultation
  • Consumers wanting to avoid palm oil for ethical reasons will be able to do so
  • Consumers wishing to choose oils low in saturated fat will be able to do so
  • The current voluntary system has created a fragmented and confusing mix of generic labelling and voluntary labelling which will be remedied by this change
  • There are documented cases of sunflower and coconut oil allergies yet generic labelling prevents allergy sufferers from avoiding these oils
  • Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ) has the objectives of responding to consumer demand for information and preventing misleading information from companies. This recommendation will address both.
  • There is significant public demand for this policy with over 160,000 signatures in Australia and New Zealand calling for this policy
  • This recommendation is policy in the United States and parts of the EU

Considerations:

Key objectives of FSANZ

Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ) have the key objectives of:

  • Responding to consumer demand for labelling information

160,000 signatures for labelling have been collected and a large number of submissions to the independent review requested clearer labelling of vegetable oils.

  • Preventing misleading behaviour from companies

The generic labelling of vegetable oils allows companies to mislead consumers into thinking that their product is free of types of vegetable oils that they may wish to avoid.

The current food standards code requires that vegetable oil be labelled ‘but where the source of vegetable oil is peanut, soy bean or sesame then the specific source name must be declared.’ Recommendation 12 is therefore not new regulation but an amendment to expand existing regulation to cover the labelling of all oils.

Palm Oil and its role in this change

Palm oil is a vegetable oil used extensively in processed foods, cosmetics, soaps and shampoos. The rapid rise of palm oil as a cheap substitute for other oils has placed an unsustainably high demand on the palm oil industry. This expansion has caused the rapid deforestation of virgin rainforest, nearly all of which has occurred in the biodiversity hotspots of Indonesia and Malaysia. This deforestation has led to a rapid rise in land conflicts between indigenous communities and companies, has pushed wildlife like

orangutan, tigers and elephants to the edge of extinction and has contributed billions of tonnes of carbon emissions to the atmosphere from uncontrolled burn offs.

These social and environmental issues are a great cause of alarm for many consumers wishing to purchase ethically, this was made evident during the 2009 Cadbury boycott. However, our current labelling standards are too weak to allow consumers to distinguish which products contain palm oil and which do not. This proposed labelling policy itself is not a boycott on palm oil, the policy itself is addressing a simple consumer right to choose and is expected to strengthen the market for Certified Sustainable Palm Oil (CSPO) in Australia and New Zealand.

Creating a level playing field for companies

The voluntary approach to the labelling of vegetable oils has created a confusing mix of labelling approaches from companies:

  • Those labelling specific oils. Woolworths have chosen to voluntarily label palm oil on their products. At Easter time this year the appearance of palm oil on their hot cross buns label led to a consumer boycott. While consumers were exercising an ethical choice, they were actually switching to competitors products which contained palm oil but which wasn’t labelled. In this case, Woolworths were punished for their transparency. The introduction of recommendation 12 would prevent further incidences of this.
  • Those labelling ‘Vegetable Oil’. Companies such as Cadbury choose not to disclose the oils in their products and label generically as ‘vegetable oil’ or ‘vegetable fat.’ This makes it difficult for allergy sufferers and gives the false impression of being palm oil free.
  • Those labelling themselves as ‘palm oil free’: a small number of companies have chosen to market themselves as palm oil free. However the argument that this approach could be used instead of recommendation 12 is baseless. Any third party certification of being ‘palm oil free’ would be costly to implement, promote and monitor. In addition the palm oil free certification would do little to help those with allergies to sunflower or coconut oil. Such suggestions seem pointless when a simple change in the form of recommendation 12 is on the table.

This change in labelling requirements would incur a small one off cost to companies. We would support the early signalling of support for this policy and an adequate compliance period to allow companies to make any changes as part of their usual repackaging cycle. Companies such as Progressive Enterprises have been able to voluntarily make this change without any significant impact.

Where companies substitute oils depending on price and availability, provision already exists under standard 1.2.4 – 7 of the food code for them to label these alternatives as ‘and/or’.

Labelling for health purposes only

Former New Zealand Food Safety Ministers have argued that labelling is purely for health information and should not extend to ethical reasons. Aside from the fact that there are documented coconut and sunflower oil allergies a number of regulations in the Food Standards Code contradict this ‘health reasons only’ argument

  • Standard 1.5.2 The requirement for genetically engineered ingredients to be labelled as such, Ministers at the Legislative Forum acknowledged that the issue was purely ethics based yet still approved mandatory labelling
  • Standard 1.2.11 Mandatory country of origin labelling (Australia only) despite no health grounds for doing so

This shows that FSANZ can and do respond to consumer demand for information even when it falls outside of health purposes.

We ask that you:

  • Personally commit your support for this policy
  • Your party commit to supporting this policy at the Legislative Forum meeting in late 2014 or mid 2015.
  • We would like to repeat our request to meet with you regarding this recommendation

Yours Sincerely,

Ben Dowdle

Unmask Palm Oil Campaign Coordinator