16apr one from the heart hero
18 April 2016

Opinion: One from the heart

Palm oil is found in everything from snack bars to shampoo.

By the time you read this, Easter will be a distant guilt trip away. I was asked by an earnest young journalist in the days prior if I was concerned about the sugar content of Easter eggs. Should there be a low-sugar alternative? Ah, no was my response. Easter is for chocolate lovers. Everyone knows what they are getting into. It’s a treat.

Had she asked me about the palm oil content of Easter eggs, it might have prompted a different response. Every bite of your Easter chocolate or treat could be helping another orang-utan on its way.

Palm oil is used in nearly half the supermarket products you see on the shelves — from chocolates to shampoo. Dairy monster Fonterra annually chews through 16,000 tonnes of palm oil.

More insidious is you can’t readily tell which products contain palm oil. Manufacturers aren’t required to disclose it on their labels — it typically hides under the catch-all “vegetable oil”.

Why does any of this matter? To harvest cheap palm oil, vast tracts of natural forest in Indonesia have been destroyed and replaced with palm. Orang-utans live in the native forests — they feed, nest and dwell in the trees. Their tenuous hold on life was starkly highlighted last year when satellites detected 122,000 forest fires burning across Indonesia. The World Bank has called the fires a vast economic and environmental crisis, fuelled by the lucrative palm oil industry.

The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) promised to provide a solution to bad practices by certifying only “good” oil. However, it has been heavily criticised for weak rules and slow progress. Globally, RSPO certifies 21 percent of palm oil as sustainably produced. To obtain certification, growers are banned from clearing primary forest for new plantations. But it has only been able to sell 50 percent of its certified oil to members. Many have opted to “offset” by buying GreenPalm certificates. The money provides funds for RSPO growers but the oil could be coming from anywhere. Of 12 major companies we’ve looked at, six relied on GreenPalm certificates to offset the bulk of their palm oil use in 2014.

For consumers who want to know if there’s palm oil in the products they buy and where it comes from, it can be hard work to find out what’s what (though we have done a lot of the work for you this month. See our investigation). However, there may be light. A review of food labelling laws has recommended oils added to foods be disclosed. A decision is due this year. Ministers are expected to give the go-ahead for labelling, but on health rather than environmental grounds. Palm oil has a high saturated fat content, associated with heart disease. Consumer pressure in Europe saw mandatory palm oil labelling in 2014.

For our hearts and the orang-utans, let’s not get palmed off on this issue any longer.

About the author:

Sue Chetwin has been our Chief Executive since April 2007 after more than 25 years in print journalism. She was formerly the Editor of Sunday News, Sunday Star Times and the Herald on Sunday.

Sue oversees all of Consumer’s operations and is also the public face of the organisation. Sue is a director of the Banking Ombudsman Scheme and a member of the Electricity Authority Retail Advisory group.

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