Malaysian palm oil lobby fires at Xenophon

Sydney Morning Herald: AAP: Stephen Johnson: April 18 2011

Malaysia's palm oil lobby has reacted angrily to a push for labels to be added to foods containing the substance.

Independent senator Nick Xenophon wants consumers to know if their food contains palm oil produced through deforestation.

Palm oil is high in saturated fat, and is increasingly produced by clearing the habitats of endangered orangutans in Malaysia and Indonesia.

Under Senator Xenophon's bill, mandatory labelling would also certify if environmentally sustainable practices were behind the production of palm oil.

The Malaysian Palm Oil Council spoke out against the idea as it fronted a Senate inquiry into the proposed legislation on Monday.

"Truth in labelling should be driven by health issues, not political expediency, which is behind some of the campaigns revolving around this bill," the council's chief executive Yusof Basiron said on Monday.

Existing laws allow palm oil to be listed as a vegetable oil but Senator Xenophon wants this changed so any food containing palm oil will carry a specific label.

The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and Greenpeace are supporting Senator Xenophon's motion, arguing palm oil production is the leading driver of deforestation.

Australia Zoo gave the Senate committee evidence showing elephants had been poisoned in Sumatra for encroaching on palm oil plantations.

Dr Basiron said environmentalists failed to understand the need to alleviate poverty in Malaysia.

"It may make the adherents and supporters of Greenpeace and World Wildlife Fund have a great degree of self satisfaction when sipping their skinny lattes, but to 570,000 Malaysians and their families there is no self satisfaction," he said.

Dr Basiron compared his group to the Australian Workers' Union stance against a carbon tax over possible job losses.

He also disputed suggestions that palm oil production had contributed to deforestation, arguing that for every hectare of palm oil trees, four hectares of permanent forests were preserved.

"Palm oil cultivation does not threaten orangutan populations in Malaysia," Dr Basiron said.

The Australian Food and Grocery Council says a mandatory labelling system would dilute the effect of health messages on food packaging.

It is against Senator Xenophon's idea, despite being a member of the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), a leading global non-profit group supporting the sustainable production of palm oil.

"Pursuing the option of mandatory labelling ... for environmental reasons, would lead to the amount of information on each label so large and so confusing that there is a high potential for the more critical information relating to health and safety (to) be compromised," the council's director of sustainable development, Tony Mahar, told the Senate committee.

The council argued on Monday that while it backed voluntary labelling of palm oil, deforestation was occurring before the mass production of palm oil began.

Senator Xenophon's truth in labelling bill was first introduced in late 2009.

The Senate committee examining the bill is due to report back to parliament in mid-June.