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French firms urged to back away from ‘no palm oil’ label claims

By Caroline Scott-Thomas , 17-Sep-2012

Products labelled ‘no palm oil’ have proliferated on French supermarket shelves in recent years but Malaysian officials have said that such labels misrepresent an industry that has made strides toward greater sustainability, in a meeting with French officials last week.

Palm oil provides benefits for food manufacturers, including a long shelf life and stability at high temperatures, but the palm oil industry has been under attack as plantations are thought to have led to deforestation in parts of Asia, destroying habitats and affecting biodiversity.

Malaysian minister for plantation industries and commodities Tan Sri Bernard Dompok met with French officials on Friday, including French agriculture minister Stéphane Le Foll, to discuss sustainable development of the palm oil industry in Malaysia, the world’s second largest palm oil exporter after Indonesia.

He said that Malaysia is committed to ensuring sustainable palm oil supply, and French manufacturers’ and retailers’ pledges to avoid palm oil misrepresent the industry. Malaysia’s 1992 Rio Summit pledge to conserve 50% of forest cover is ahead of European commitments, he said.

RSPO certification

Efforts to ensure a sustainable supply of palm oil have been led by the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), which brings together palm oil firms and conservation groups and certifies oil that has not been grown on land deforested to produce the crop. Certified Sustainable Palm Oil has increased, and now represents about 11% of world crude palm oil production.

"We want to increase our exports to France certified oils," the Malaysian minister told officials and media in Paris.

‘No palm oil’ claim increasing

However, ‘no palm oil’ is an on-pack label claim on the up, according to market research organisation Mintel, which says there were 72 new products in Europe carrying such a claim front of pack in 2011, compared to 16 in 2010. Up to the end of July this year, there were 66 new products bearing the claim, and France accounted for 80% of those.

Jacquet and San Michel were the most active companies in the country in terms of their use of the claim, Mintel’s David Jago told this publication in July. Others included Findus, with its Lasagne Bolognese, and PepsiCo’s Lay’s palm-oil-free Saveur Moutarde Pickles crisps.

In June, an association of palm oil producers from Ivory Coast filed a business tribunal complaint against French retail chain Magasins U for its negative portrayal of palm oil in an advertisement , which it claimed could harm its farmers’ livelihoods. The Casino supermarket chain has also pledged to remove palm oil from its own-brand foods, while Carrefour decided to switch to CSPO by 2015 instead, following the lead of Belgian and Dutch retailers.

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