Does removing palm oil from food products really help the environment? The case of Iceland Foods Ltd (Iceland Supermarket), United Kingdom
On 9 April 2018, Iceland Foods Ltd (Iceland), a British supermarket chain with an emphasis on the sale of frozen foods, including prepared meals and vegetables, announced its drastic decision to eliminate palm oil from all of its own-brand products. More specifically, on its website, Iceland states that, by the end of 2018, 100% of its own-brand food products would no longer contain palm oil. In recent years, palm oil has been at the centre of controversies for allegedly driving deforestation, putting wildlife in danger and having negative effects on human health. Iceland claims that its decision to remove palm oil from its products was based on environmental protection reasons alone, in an effort to stop deforestation. This simplistic and deceptive view falls short of addressing the many environmental questions that undoubtedly must be addressed on a global level. Singling out and discriminating against palm oil alone appears to be a marketing stunt, diverting attention from the real issues and based on a number of misleading assumptions.
Palm oil is an edible vegetable oil, which is extracted from the fruit of oil palm trees. The oil palm tree produces high quality oil used not only for cooking, but also as an ingredient in food products, detergents, cosmetics and biofuels. Palm oil is a very productive crop that produces a high quantity and quality of oil at a relatively low cost and that requires a smaller area of cultivation compared to other vegetable oil crops, such as rapeseed, soybean and sunflower (in terms of the same yield). Indonesia and Malaysia are the world’s most important palm oil producing countries. The use of palm oil in the food industry has increased rapidly over the last few years and increased demand of palm oil led to a growing number of oil palm plantations. However, environmental allegations with respect to oil palm cultivation, deforestation, and effects on wildlife often appear to be unsubstantiated misleading generalisations.
Anti-palm oil campaigns are not new. Marketing and labelling issues play an important commercial role in the EU and are starting to play an important role around the world. Recently, at the end of 2017, French supermarket chain Système U intensified its aggressive marketing campaign with respect to its decision to substitute so-called ‘controversial substances’, including palm oil. Similarly, already in 2012, the French supermarket chain Casino introduced a ‘palm oil-free’ label on its own-brand products, claiming better nutritional quality. For several years, EU food business operators and retailers, particularly in Belgium, France, Italy and Spain, have increasingly been labelling a number of foodstuffs as ‘palm oil-free’ and continue waging related marketing campaigns with a denigrating agenda. This trend continues despite the arguable illegality of such labels within the EU. This trend now appears to have reached the UK. On 9 April 2018, the British supermarket chain Iceland announced its decision to eliminate palm oil from all its own-brand products by the end of 2018 (currently half of its products do not contain palm oil). Iceland stated that its decision was part of its environmental commitments. More specifically, Iceland intends to stop deforestation in Indonesia and Malaysia and to protect wildlife. On its website, Iceland alleges that palm oil was one of the world’s “biggest causes of deforestation” and posed “a significant threat to a number of species already facing extinction”. According to Iceland, its decision to remove palm oil from its products, would lower the demand for palm oil by more than 500 metric tonnes per year. A small amount, considering that, currently, businesses in the UK import around 400,000 metric tonnes per year. Iceland’s Managing Director stated that until Iceland could “guarantee palm oil is not causing rainforest destruction, we are simply saying ‘no to palm oil’, we don’t believe there is such a thing as ‘sustainable’ palm oil available to retailers”. Iceland’s managing director underlined that the decision to eliminate palm oil was intended to provide consumers with a choice about what they buy. Iceland plans to replace palm oil with “oils and fats that do not destroy the rainforest”. Moreover and perhaps more disturbingly, in light of the legal arguments often provided, Iceland also intends to attach a ‘no palm oil’ sticker on products’ packaging.
Palm oil-producers and academics have expressed their disagreement with Iceland’s move. Palm oil-producing countries pointed out that the ban on palm oil was discriminatory and could further fuel the global campaigns of denigration against palm oil. Furthermore, palm oil-producing countries stated that replacing palm oil with other vegetable oils would actually increase the use of land to satisfy the global demand for vegetable oils. Such measure could thereby accelerate ground degradation, which could cause more flora and fauna damage and increase CO2 emissions. The Council of Palm Oil Producing Countries (CPOPC) stated that the claims against palm oil and the decision taken by Iceland were misleading consumers on the environmental benefits of other vegetable oils. Researchers from the Durrell Institute of Conservation and Biology (DICE) of the University of Kent published their concerns vis-à-vis Iceland’s decision, underlining that banning palm oil from products was actually a step backwards in the effort to prevent deforestation and to promote sustainability. Currently, researchers at DICE are working with palm oil certification bodies and companies to improve the way in which oil palm cultivation interacts with the environment. The work at DICE seeks to demonstrate the advantages of connecting high-quality rainforest patches in oil palm plantations to allow wildlife to move freely. If sustainability certification of palm oil became more widespread, this would benefit the environment a lot more than switching to other vegetable oils. According to the research at DICE, Iceland should work with the industry to find sustainably sourced solutions, highlighting that “[e]nvironmentally conscious consumers should demand palm oil from certified sources, but avoiding it altogether runs the risk of putting pressure on other crops that are equally to blame for the world’s environmental problems”.
The issue of sustainability is already being addressed by palm oil-producing countries, often in concerted efforts with the relevant industries and NGOs. Establishing sustainability certification and implementing such standards is the main tool to improve the environmental impact of palm oil production, as it is for all other forms of human activity that have environmental impacts. The statement by Iceland’s Managing Director that there was no such thing as “sustainable palm oil” clearly contradicts the important efforts already underway, such as the initiative in palm oil-producing countries (e.g., the Indonesian Sustainable Palm Oil (ISPO) and the Malaysian Sustainable Palm Oil (MSPO) standards), the concerted efforts within the CPOPC, and the initiatives by the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO).
Palm oil producers and palm oil-producing countries clearly recognise the need for improving the sustainability of palm oil production. The overall importance of environmental protection is also undisputed. However, discriminatory and denigrating measures taken with respect to one specific product, whether they are ‘private’ or ‘public’ in nature, clearly do not achieve the desired result. The small effect by Iceland’s action is already demonstrated by the neglectable amount it would remove from overall UK palm oil imports. A number of other products also impact the environment and, in many cases, probably more so than palm oil. Why is Iceland not taking action against those products? Is it perhaps because palm oil is an easy scapegoat and convenient target that is not cultivated in the UK or the EU? For instance, soy is one of the crop alternatives to produce vegetable oil. However, on average, eight hectares of soybeans are needed to produce the same amount of vegetable oil that can be achieved with one hectare of oil palm. Beef is another important example, the production of which also has a big impact on the environment. Cattle farms, are being accused of deforestation and of ever-increasing methane emissions contributing to climate change, but we do not see many campaigns of the type that are being waged in Europe against palm oil. Will removing palm oil from Iceland’s products help the environment? Clearly not, despite the rather hypocritical illusion that is being marketed by its proponents.
Another worrisome aspect of Iceland’s campaign concerns its intention to attach a ‘no palm oil’ sticker on its packaging. In principle, businesses are free to decide which kind of raw materials they use in their products, free to choose whether or not to use palm oil. However, waging denigrating marketing campaigns and attaching unauthorised labels to food products might violate the law. Since 13 December 2014, Regulation (EU) No. 1169/2011 of the European Parliament and of the Council of 25 October 2011 on the provision of food information to consumers (the Food Information Regulation, FIR) provides that the specific vegetable oils must be indicated in the list of ingredients. Any consumer can read in the list of ingredients whether a product does or does not contain palm oil, which can no longer be ‘hidden’ behind the generic term ‘vegetable oils’. Therefore, since the specific origin of the vegetable oil used in any given foodstuff must be declared, ‘palm-oil free’ claims are arguably unnecessary, irrelevant and illegal pursuant to Article 7(1)(c) of the FIR. When made in a nutritional context, or in case of accompanying further nutritional or environmental allegations, they often appear to be unsubstantiated misleading generalisations, and could also be considered misleading pursuant to Article 7(1)(a) of the FIR. Finally, ‘palm oil-free’ claims are arguably not permitted nutrition claims in the sense of Article 8(1) of Regulation (EC) No 1924/2006 of the European Parliament and of the Council on nutrition and health claims made on foods, which, for instance, allows the claim ‘saturated fat-free’.
Iceland’s decision to eliminate palm oil from its own-brand products is obviously legitimate as a company decision, but it is arguably a discriminatory form of denigration against palm oil and, in view of other products’ impact on the environment, such as soy or beef, clearly hypocritical. Efforts by palm oil producers and palm oil-producing countries should be recognised and encouraged by paying a premium for sustainable palm oil. Instead, palm oil is used as an easy scapegoat and denigrated as a whole. Legal avenues against misleading advertising and misleading food product labelling are available and should be considered to ensure that consumers are not deceived.
Uthaya Kumar, Regional Manager, MPOC Brussels,
Datuk Dr. Kalyana Sundram, CEO, MPOC