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Dispatch from RT10 in Singapore

UK sustainable palm oil statement is ‘not really a commitment’, says RSPO president

By Caroline Scott-Thomas , 31-Oct-2012

A UK government statement drawing together new and existing pledges on sustainable palm oil falls short of a real commitment to sustainable sourcing, according to the president of the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) Dr Jan Kees Vis.

The UK’s department for environment, food and rural affairs (Defra) said on Tuesday that it would only use palm oil from certified sustainable sources in the government’s own catering facilities by the end of 2015, and said it was ‘working towards’ a similar commitment from the various industries that use palm oil, including the food industry, which accounts for about 70% of total use.

“A commitment without a time frame is not really a commitment,” Kees Vis told reporters at the roundtable’s tenth annual meeting in Singapore this week.

Kees Vis is also global sustainable sourcing development director at Unilever, one of the world’s biggest palm oil users, with products accounting for about 3% of global volume. The company says it will exceed its target for 100% certified sustainable palm oil by 2015, and is on track to achieve this goal by the end of the year.

“If retailers are saying that they won’t be able to find certified sustainable palm oil, I would say that is without grounds,” he said. “There’s currently 1.3m tonnes of certified palm oil that remains unsold.”

This unsold certified palm oil represents just under half of total production under the RSPO programme and is sold as regular, non-certified oil.

Lacking time-bound commitments?

His criticism was echoed by WWF, which welcomed Defra’s work on palm oil sustainability, but flagged its reference to ‘working towards’ 100% sustainable palm oil by 2015, saying it lacked time bound commitments.

Food and agriculture policy officer at WWF-UK said: “The whole UK palm oil industry from traders and processors through to manufacturers needs to match the best actions taken by individual businesses that have already committed to using 100% RSPO certified palm oil and which are, it many cases, well on the way to achieving this commitment ahead of time.”

Several UK food manufacturers have committed to using 100% RSPO certified palm oil, including United Biscuits, Warburton’s, Burton’s, Kraft and Nestlé UK, as have supermarkets such as The Cooperative, Waitrose, M&S and Sainsbury’s.

“It is a shame the ambition of these companies is not matched by those of the representative bodies of other sectors of the UK palm oil industry in the national statement,” said Harrison.

Single commitment ‘not practical’

Director of sustainability for UK trade association the Food and Drink Federation Andrew Kuyk said the use of the phrase ‘working towards’ was necessary to deal with difficulties sourcing certified sustainable palm oil across sectors.

“There is no single definition of ‘sustainable palm oil’ and it is used in a number of applications outside the food sector, either directly or in the form of derivatives,” he said. “A single commitment covering all these aspects with a single deadline would not be practical, hence the expression ‘working towards’.

“We also need to cover cases where, for whatever reason, supplies of certified sustainable oil may be unavailable and it would be unreasonable to expect production lines to be halted, especially if palm oil accounted for only a very small percentage of the final product – some companies would not want to risk the reputational damage of giving an absolute 100% commitment in such circumstances.”

The UK government’s statement follows those made by representatives of palm oil users in Belgium and the Netherlands, where industry associations have pledged to rid palm oil from non-certified sources from the food supply chain by the end of 2015.

The Defra statement is available to download here .

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