The resolution to amend the policy was submitted by numerous stakeholders including food companies Unilever, Mondelez, AAK, IOI Loders Croklaan and retailers Marks & Spencer, Tesco and Waitrose, and was adopted last year at a general assembly meeting. It will come into force in September 2016.
“The proponents of this resolution recognize that there are examples of RSPO members who communicate negatively on Palm Oil, in a direct or indirect way, while failing to mention the existence and role of the RSPO to transform the palm oil industry, or who are mentioning the RSPO and their membership of the RSPO separately from their other claims on palm oil.”
The resolution reads: “Members must not make claims which imply that the removal of palm oil from a product is a preferable social or environmental sustainability outcome to the use of RSPO certified sustainable palm oil. Moreover, members shall seek to promote, and not to denigrate the aims and goals of RSPO, namely the production and use of RSPO certified sustainable palm oil.”
The new policy marks a big shift for RSPO, according to the Initiative for Public Policy Analysis (IPPA), which described itself as a public policy think-tank based in Nigeria campaigning against palm oil “falsehoods”. IPPA said the organisation has "historically been quite passive about the anti-palm oil campaign".
Global Outreach and Engagement Director at RSPO, Stefano Savi, told FoodNavigator that if a claim made by a company, either on the product’s packaging or in a B2B communication, is considered to be in breach of the new resolution, it would be given a time-frame for compliance which, depending on the severity of the breach, may vary between three to six months.
If the issue cannot be resolved then the company could see its membership terminated, but Savi said this would be a last resort only as the RSPO’s policy was to engage with its members.
The rules will not be enforced by the RSPO itself but by third party certification bodies that are RSPO–accredited.
Who is in breach?
IPPA’s website flags several European companies that make palm oil-free claims, such as Belgian company Delhaize and French firms Jacquet Brossard, or Findus. These companies did not respond in time when contacted by this publication, and Savi would not comment on their claims of palm-oil free products, but said if the IPPA was concerned it should file a complaint with RSPO.
The legal standing of ‘palm oil free’ labels has already been questioned by lawyers. In 2014 Paris-based lawyer Anne Bourdu said using ‘palm oil free’ labelling was “unacceptable from a regulatory point of view”.
According to the new rules, companies will find themselves in breach if claiming to have removed palm oil for environmental reasons – but what about health reasons as many consumers associate palm oil with unhealthy saturated fats?
This would need to be looked at on a case by
case basis, said Savi. “It’s difficult for us to say what is allowed, what we can say is what is not allowed – and that is the removal of RSPO palm oil for social or environmental reasons,” adding that commenting on the nutritional aspect of the palm oil consumption lies outside the remit of the organisation.
While food manufacturers are required by European FIC laws to state the origin of fats or oils in the ingredient list, regardless of the amount, statements highlighting the absence of palm oil is not regulated at an EU level – unlike claims of ‘gluten-free’ or ‘sugar-free’.
But food lawyer, Sebastian Romero Melchor, told FoodNavigator that if companies remove palm oil for health reasons, they could still find themselves in breach if the implication is that the product has beneficial nutritional properties as a result.
Food manufacturers would also need to be wary about the ingredient they use to replace palm oil.
“In Spain, [for instance] the industry’s self-regulatory body Autocontrol has stated that if the absence of a particular type of additives is stated, consumers would not expect the product to contain any other type of additive, or the use of that statement would be considered misleading. In other words, if the producer replaces palm oil by another oil of similar nutritional characteristics, the statement “palm oil free” would also be misleading,” said Melchor.