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Food manufacturers and retailers in parts of the European Union (EU) have affixed ‘No palm oil’ or ‘palm oil-free’ labels and/or logos to their products. The labels appear to be most widespread in Belgium and France, but are being increasingly identified in Italy and certain Scandinavian countries.

Although the labels and logos may appear to be advertising schemes, they constitute nothing less than smear campaigns. Operators seek to advertise their food products as being healthier, greener or better than competing ones containing palm oil. This is based on false allegations suggesting that palm oil is environmentally- and socially-unfriendly or that its consumption leads to health problems.

Environmental excuse

Unsolicited information is often given to consumers to convince them of the supposedly negative effects of palm oil production.

Operators conveniently ignore the fact that a significant part of palm oil production is certified as sustainable under internationally-recognised and reputable schemes, such as the Roundtable for Sustainable Palm Oil scheme and the Malaysian Sustainable Palm Oil standard.

Applicable EU legislation forbids unsubstantiated generalisations. In particular, it prohibits any advertising that deceives consumers in order to affect their economic behaviour in a way that ultimately injures competitors.

As this is exactly the effect that the ‘No palm oil’ label seeks, it is prohibited. ‘No palm oil’ and ‘palm oil-free’ claims are therefore illegal under specific legislation that applies to the whole of the EU.

Nutritional allegations

Another justification relies on the unfounded notion that consuming palm oil increases cardiovascular risk to dangerously high levels.

The allegations neglect the fact that palm oil is a naturally stable fat made up of saturated and unsaturated fatty acids. It is endowed with saturated palmitic and monounsaturated oleic acids, as well as polyunsaturated linoleic acid. This provides an almost ideal mix for the preparation of solid and semi-solid food formulations for products with a long shelf-life and which are free of trans fats.

Additionally, palm oil is rich in protective active antioxidants, beta carotene and Vitamin E tocotrienols, which have cholesterol-lowering and antioxidant properties.

The ‘No palm oil’ label is also used as a ‘nutrition claim’. However, EU law dictates that this may only be used where certain conditions are met, including where the claim has been approved and is included in the relevant list. ‘Fat-free’, ‘saturated fat-free’ and ‘sugar-free’ are examples of permitted claims.

‘No palm oil’ or ‘palm oil-free’ claims – which in the majority of cases and in the mind of most consumers are used in a nutritional context – are not included in the list of permitted claims. Therefore, their use in a nutritional context is illegal under EU and member-states’ law.

Further confirmation

The EU’s Food Information Regulation (FIR), which entered into force on Dec 13, 2014, provides for an additional framework against which such claims need to be assessed.

The FIR requires that any food product containing vegetable oil(s) must carry a label indicating the specific vegetable origin. This means that, by reading the list of ingredients, consumers will know whether a product contains palm oil or not, thereby rendering any additional (negative) claim redundant.

In addition, the FIR stipulates that information must not be misleading, including by suggesting that a product possesses certain characteristics – when, in fact, all similar foods possess such characteristics – especially by emphasising the presence or absence of certain ingredients.

Against this backdrop, ‘No palm oil’ claims are not only redundant, but also flagrantly misleading. They give consumers the impression such products have properties that others do not have. They also lead to the belief that the products are ‘special’ – when, in reality, all products not containing palm oil have identical characteristics.

Authorities must intervene

One only needs to analyse ‘No palm oil’ and ‘palm oil-free’ labels and logos against the backdrop of the applicable legislation to realise that they are contrary to EU and member-states’ law.

They are also prejudicial to responsible operators and consumers who are subjected to misleading marketing and advertising tools. These lack any informative agenda and only seek to promote specific products by denigrating others.

The EU legal system and authorities are equipped to address this matter and prevent highly damaging private marketing practices that are clearly anti-competitive, fraudulent and deceptive. They must act now.

Fratini Vergano
European Lawyers

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