That is according to Katherine Rich, chief executive of the New Zealand Food and Grocery Council (FGC), in response to a lobbying effort to mandate food companies to reveal whether they use palm oil.
Ministers are due to decide in November whether to pass the proposal. The NZ Herald reports that the joint forum of 10 trans-Tasman food and health ministers will follow America, Canada and the European Union in voting to implement mandatory labelling.
New Zealand’s representative, food safety minister Jo Goodhew, has said that she will “consider the advice” of a technical report on the issue by Food Safety Australia New Zealand, the regulator which develops and maintains the food safety code, before deciding how to vote.
Under current regulations palm oil does not have be labelled as such; generic terms such as “vegetable oil” are deemed sufficient to comply with the code.
Fsanz has previously rejected an application for mandatory ingredient labelling of palm oil when used in food products. This is because that application was related to environmental concerns, whereas the current proposal focuses on health issues, specifically how palm oil, like coconut oil, contains a high proportion of saturated fat.
The FGC believes that palm oil, which often requires 10 times less land to produce than other mainstream edible oils, is not a toxic ingredient that should be avoided.
“When grown on appropriate farming land, palm oil is the most environmentally sustainable, cost-effective and versatile vegetable oil available in the world today,” said Rich,adding that food labelling is increasingly being used as “an easy battleground for issues as diverse as deforestation, animal welfare, obesity and human rights”.
“As a country we need to be realistic about what can and can’t be solved by a product label. From a health perspective, it’s more important for consumers to know how much saturated fat is contained in a product rather than what that fat might be.”
Palm oil is estimated to feature in about half of all products available in supermarkets, and is one of more than 70 vegetable oils used in food manufacturing.
Harvested in over 40 countries, it can be produced sustainably in collaboration with one of several environmental certification bodies, such as the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil.
It is no secret, though, how many other sources have been shown to be cavalier in their attitudes to deforestation and human rights, prompting widespread protests against the crop.
Environmental campaigners, including New Zealand’s four biggest zoos, have leapt in support of the latest proposal even though it was raised ostensibly for health purposes.
“A label which says ‘contains palm oil’ leaves interested shoppers none the wiser,” said Rich.
“Calls for palm oil labels haven’t been thought through. Labels will only indicate whether palm oil is used, but will say nothing about where the oil was sourced or whether sustainable production practices were employed."