THE revelation by the Hong Kong Consumer Council on Oct 18, 2021, that 60 samples of biscuits contained carcinogenic contaminants of glycidol and/or acrylamide and 46 of the same samples also contained 3-monochloropropane diol (3-MCPD) is a stern wake-up call for the palm oil industry, especially in Malaysia.
Glycidol can be hydrolysed from glycidyl esters (GE) during the confectionary manufacturing process.
To put things in the proper context, GE and 3-MCPD are present in most vegetable oils and not merely in palm oil, and they are formed unintentionally during the oil refining process. The Joint Food and Agriculture Organisation/World Health Organisation Expert Committee on Food Additives has stated that GE may induce cancer in animals, though no human clinical trials have been conducted on the matter.
While the Hong Kong Consumer Council made no mention of palm oil in its official statement, the South China Morning Post newspaper in its report on the same day quoted council CEO Gilly Wong as saying “... these kinds of contaminants are possible to avoid because, according to our findings, some of the ingredients in these biscuits are palm oil”. It leaves no room for argument of the intended causal link with palm oil, mala fide or otherwise. A natural extension of the situation is misreporting by other media that palm oil can be cancer-causing. Collectively, the perceived and real damage to the palm oil industry is serious.
This issue first surfaced on May 3, 2016, when the European Food Safety Authority set the limits for GE and 3-MCPD in plam oil at one part per million (ppm) and 2.5 ppm respectively. The Malaysian government and industry reacted swiftly and RM50mil was reportedly allocated to identify why GE and 3-MCPD is present and what intervention is required to reduce their presence.
Unfortunately, five years on, the issue remains unresolved. The original deadlines were to cap GE and 3-MCPD at one ppm and 2.5 ppm respectively by January 2021 and further cap 3-MCPD at 1.25 ppm by January 2022 and January 2023 for integrated and independent refineries respectively. These deadlines have been rescheduled to January 2023 with caps of one ppm of GE as well as 1.25 ppm and 2.5 ppm of 3-MCPD for integrated and independent refineries respectively. The deadlines were supposedly pushed due to multiple challenges brought about by lower prices for crude palm oil prior to 2021 and the Covid-19 pandemic, which began in March 2020.
I understand that various processes, from both local and foreign technology firms, have been tested and proven to be effective, and some are relatively affordable to use for the commonly consumed processed palm oil. In fact, major Malaysian producers have always produced high quality processed palm oil with contaminant levels well below the thresholds for products such as infant formula that demands high standards. Hence, the means and ability to intervene are already present.
It would be myopic to only continue producing high quality palm oils for selected customers in the developed economies, especially in Europe, and assume that developing economies will continue to stomach a lower grade edible oil. Living standards have risen and continue to rise in China and India, who, combined, consumed more than 30% of Malaysia’s palm oil exports in 2020, and their consumer demand for food safety can only increase.
And lest we forget, we Malaysians consume the same oil. What is considered potentially harmful for others is just as harmful for ourselves. Charity does begin at home after all.
Malaysia always took pride in balancing among people, planet and profit in our palm oil production. This is not merely necessary but the right action to take. Our world is moving irreversibly towards development that does not discriminate among economic, environment and social considerations. Climate change and sustainability are no longer just buzzwords; they go to the very core of continued human existence. The ongoing pandemic and natural disasters are signals from Mother Earth that we simply cannot ignore.
Hence, caring for the health and well-being of our palm oil consumers globally is a sacrosanct mission. This is over and above the fact that our palm oil industry was worth more than RM72bil in exports in 2020.
It is time that all public and private sector participants stop dragging their feet and get on with the necessary interventions to reduce GE and 3-MCPD in our palm oil. It is time that we take concrete steps to protect our golden goose.
KU KOK PENG
Former palm oil National Key Economic Area director
Bukit Jalil, Kuala Lumpur