We have a right to know what's in our food

Sydney Morning Herald: 25 August 2011: Opinion: Nick Xenophon

Food labels shouldn't lie. In essence that is what the debate about the listing of palm oil in the ingredients information panel is really about.

The bill I introduced with the Greens to require the labelling of palm oil has passed the Senate and is about to be voted on in the House.

Under current food labelling laws manufacturers are able to call palm oil "vegetable oil" on their packaging.

This is dishonest. For a start palm oil is a fruit, not a vegetable. Secondly, this is also endangering our health. Palm oil is high is in saturated fat and low in polyunsaturated fat. The Heart Foundation says that the consumption of palm oil increases the risk of heart disease.

But right now Australian consumers can't avoid palm oil even if they wanted to because labelling is unclear or false.

This loophole has allowed food manufacturers to put palm oil into 40 per cent of food products at the supermarket leading the average Australian to consume 10 kilograms of the stuff every year.

If we are what we eat, we have a right to know what we are eating.

Australian consumers have also demonstrated a desire to avoid palm oil for environmental reasons.

In south-east Asia alone, the equivalent of 300 soccer fields are cleared of trees every hour for palm oil production, according to environmentalists.

Each year more than 1000 orang-utans die because of this devastating and unsustainable land clearing.

Zoo's Victoria, Adelaide Zoo, and Auckland Zoo recently launched the "Don't Palm Us Off" campaign calling for palm oil to be labelled on food packaging. In the first 12 months of the campaign, more than 130,000 people signed on to show their support. Clearly there is consumer demand for this reform.

No one is calling for a ban. I just believe consumers have a right to make informed choices.

And this Bill is not just about whether consumers will change their shopping habits. It's also about creating incentives for food manufacturers to change their ways.

Right now manufacturers can slip palm oil into their products and it won't have an impact on the demand for their products because shoppers who don't want to eat palm oil have no idea that the product contains the ingredient.

But if we have true transparency, manufacturers will have to either list palm oil as an ingredient or use an alternative oil, or palm oil that is certified as produced sustainably.

The current rules mean Australians can't trust what they read on packaging and this is unacceptable.

If manufacturers want to argue that the public doesn't care about the issue and labelling reforms won't change consumer behaviour, I simply say, "prove it". If industry is so confident labelling reform won't change anything, why are they so concerned about its introduction?

I suspect the real reason industry is opposing this Bill is because palm oil is cheap, and the more they can sneak it into products, the fatter their profits.

The problem is while their profits grow fatter, so do our kids.

If you really believe in free markets, you have to believe that consumers have a right to honest information about their choices.

Without labelling reform, Australian consumers will be left shopping and eating in the dark.

Nick Xenophon is an independent senator from South Australia.