Belgium pledges to review 'No Palm Oil' label


THE new EU Food Information for Consumers Regulation (FIC), which came into effect on Dec 13, 2014, has completely transformed the debate on the “No Palm Oil” labels. The new FIC Regulation has confirmed beyond doubt that the “No Palm Oil” labels are illegal, and have started being denounced accordingly.

A first encouraging sign came from Belgium a few weeks ago. In his reply to a Parliamentary Question, the Belgian Minister for Economy and Foreign Trade, Kris Peeters, acknowledged the effect on “No Palm Oil” labels of the new EU regulation.

As he explained, “under the former regulation all products containing natural oils could just display natural oils in the list of ingredients. Now this needs to be followed with the exact kind of natural oils that are used in the product. In this way the consumer can see for himself if palm oil has been used in the production process of the product”. Because the “No Palm Oil” labels are superfluous under the new EU legislation, Minister Peeters promised to discuss with Belgian manufacturers to review the use of these labels.

This is a major shift in the position of the Belgian government, and a great sign of hope for millions of people, whose lives depend on the palm oil sector, in Asia and Africa. This is also an important step towards the final removal of an unfair labelling practice, which has been tolerated in Belgium and France – the only countries in Europe where these labels are being used – for far too long.

Following the entry into force of the FIC Regulation, manufacturers are obliged to specify the type of vegetable oil used in their food products, including palm oil. It is then a total nonsense to specify its absence. No more additional labelling is today needed, or desired. It is just misleading and misinforming European consumers – and unfairly denigrating palm oil producers.

Yet, some politicians seem to tolerate these labels, confusing them with the generic vegetable oil labelling provisions of the FIC Regulation. As I have recently explained to a Belgian Member of the European Parliament, Marc Tarabella, in my reply (http://www.ceopalmoil.com/2015/01/mpoc-correct-meps-errors-on-palm-oil-labels/) to some of his inaccurate and misleading statements relating to palm oil, these two issues are totally separate.

Malaysian Palm Oil is comfortable with the new FIC labelling rules for vegetable oils. These specify that the oil of origin (e.g. palm oil; sunflower; etc) must be specified in the ingredients list. This is non-discriminatory and applies to all oils.

The “No Palm Oil” labels are different. This is a campaign by certain companies – and is not a legal provision or regulation at all. It is an attempt by these companies to deliberately denigrate palm oil, and harm the palm oil industry and the many hundreds of thousands of small farmers, who produce palm oil in Malaysia. The Malaysian Palm Oil industry is transparent and responsible, and does not need to be dictated to on these issues.

Food producers – like Delhaize, Galler, Casino and Système U – are not transparent or responsible in their communications and their practices.

By keeping the “No Palm Oil” labels, they are showing their true purpose, which has nothing to do with transparency or consumer awareness, already in place under the new EU regulation. It is about denigration of palm oil and harming small farmers.

This practice has proven to be in breach of EU law, and also domestic French and Belgian laws.

An analysis (http://theoilpalm.org/legal-analysis-shows-no-palm-oil-labels-are-illegal-and-must-be-removed/) undertaken by international law firm Hogan Lovells, has highlighted numerous illegalities of the anti-palm oil labels. Beside the new FIC Regulation, companies in Belgium, and in France are also in breach of many existing laws on unfair competition, health claims, and advertising.

Yet, these labels are still there.

The Belgian Government is moving in the right direction. The recent reply of Minister Peeters to the Parliamentary Question on palm oil labeling acknowledges the change of the situation with the entry into force of the FIC regulation: palm oil-free labels became totally useless and unnecessary.

The position of French public authorities has changed too. The French Directorate for fraud (DGCCRF) has recently stated that the “No Palm Oil” labels “could be considered licit in some cases or in breach of regulations in others”. This is another major move that shows how the FIC Regulation has completely changed the debate over the “No Palm Oil” labels in the last months. If public authorities have now acknowledged their illegality, private companies need to remove the labels.

For this reason we expect the Belgian and French governments to enforce the law, with the support of the two competent authorities – AFSCA in Belgium and DGCCRF in France – and ban the “No Palm Oil” labels once for all.

The EU has a key role to play in this debate. DG SANTE, the body overseeing all EU food labelling regulation, should ensure a correct application of their new regulation and denounce any irregularities. There are major European retailers that are using discriminatory labels, which are against the provisions of the FIC regulation. This is a major irregularity and we expect DG SANTE to take the lead in enforcing the regulation.

This lack of action is a source of great frustration to the Malaysian Palm Oil community, who sees European companies denigrating an amazing food crop without merit. Palm oil is the most efficient vegetable oilseed crop in the world. It produces up to 10 times more oil than other leading oilseed crops. It is a unique food ingredient, with many cooking properties and health benefits, including being completely free of dangerous trans fats.

Most importantly, palm oil is one of Malaysia’s major exports and a source of rural development and poverty alleviation. Small farmers, whose lives and livelihoods have been transformed by planting oil palm, carry out almost 40% of the total production.

If not removed promptly, “No Palm Oil” labels could have a negative impact on trading relations between Malaysia and Belgium, a point that was confirmed during the recent Trade Mission of Belgian businesses to Malaysia.

Minister Kris Peeters has taken a good step in the right direction, in Belgium. It is now time for the companies and regulators, of both Belgium and France, to properly enforce the EU’s FIC Regulation and eliminate these illegal labels altogether.

Tan Sri Dr Yusof Basiron is CEO of the Malaysian Palm Oil Council.