French firms have stepped up restrictions on the use of palm oil, decried for being linked to deforestation in Asia, in a move that may boost demand for local oils. But some warned it could raise new food and land problems.
The debate about palm oil’s impact on the environment has intensified after green groups published reports last month blaming the way key producers were sourcing their oil by destroying rainforests and threatening endangered species.
In France it was amplified by a television broadcast that condemned food makers’ use of cheap palm oil to cut costs and referring to health concern that its high level of saturated fat could raise cholesterol and heart diseases.
“By removing palm oil from our products in favour of rapeseed oil, we act in a responsible way both in terms of environment and public health,” Findus, France’s largest frozen food maker, said in a statement on April 1.
Using the same arguments, retailer Casino said last week that more than 200 food products would be guaranteed to be palm oil free by the end of the year and another 370 would follow. Palm oil would be replaced by rapeseed or sunflower oil.
Food retailer Auchan said it was working on ways to guarantee all its products are palm oil free.
Carrefour, the world’s second-largest retailer, replaced palm oil in several branded goods but said it favoured the approach of promoting oil certified by the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO).
“The group’s objective is to obtain that 100 per cent of our supplies are made with certified palm oil for our own label products by 2015,” a Carrefour spokeswoman said.
A World Wildlife Fund scoreboard carried out in 2009 of 59 European firms’ use of sustainable palm oil – guaranteed not to be linked to deforestation – put Carrefour No. 15 on the list but other French retailers lagged behind, like E. Leclerc (41), Auchan (50), Casino (55), Mousquetaires (56) and Magasin U (57).
Green groups have blamed Indonesian and Malaysian planters for their expansion activities and pressurizing top palm oil buyers to halt contracts with errant suppliers as food and fuel demand for the vegetable oil grows.
Greenpeace issued a report blaming Indonesia’s top palm trees planter Sinar Mas while Friends of the Earth targeted Malaysian second-largest planter IOI Corp.
Both companies denied harmful practices.
Following the reports world food giants Unilever and Nestlé halted palm oil supply contracts with Sinar Mas and Unilever said it had also contacted IOI.
However, palm oil producers warned that the remedy could be worse than the disease.
Marc den Hartog, sales and marketing director for Loders Croklaan Europe, a branch of IOI, said banning any type of palm oil in Europe could actually worsen the situation as it would give local producers no incentive to produce in an environment-friendly way.
“On the opposite, buying more sustainable palm oil would stimulate responsible output and protect the forest,” he said.
Others stressed that obtaining “cleaner” oils from rapeseed or sunflower needed more than five times the same area and could therefore lead to other land and food price problems.
Palm trees also need less crop chemicals, said Antoine de Gasquet head of France’s largest oil-trading firm Baillon Intercor, which deals all types of vegetable oils.
Saturated fat is essential in the making of some products like margarine, which needs it for its solidification properties, so experts stressed that removing palm oil from the ingredient list could just lead to a switch to other fats that show no better nutritional qualities.