New Zealand and Australian ministers have once again put off voting on whether to change labelling rules, reports Eloise Gibson

A trans-Tasman vote on whether to clearly label products containing palm oil and other vegetable fats won’t happen for at least another six months, adding to a process that has lasted eight years and counting. 

Zoos fighting to reveal palm oil had hoped for a decision next week, but instead New Zealand will use a trans-Tasman ministerial forum to find out what Australian ministers need before they agree to a vote on the issue. 

Polling commissioned by zoos and other pro-labelling groups suggests about nine out of 10 New Zealanders want to know what kind of oils and fats are in their supermarket products, but currently ingredients lists can use generic terms like “vegetable oil” or “vegetable fats” to describe any oil, from sunflower, to coconut, to palm.

Not only are palm and coconut oil much higher in saturated fat than many other oils, palm oil is linked to deforestation and environmental damage in places where orangutans and tigers live, which is why zoos in New Zealand and Australia have been pressing health and food safety ministers to let consumers see which products contain it.

New Zealand and Australian state and federal ministers were set to vote in November on a recommendation to bring in clearer labelling rules but a decision was put off.

Ministers will meet again to talk about labelling on April 28. But New Zealand Food Safety Minister David Bennett says he is not expecting a final decision this month either, because the issue has been listed on the meeting’s agenda as a topic for discussion and evaluation rather than voting.

New Zealand has been leading efforts to keep the item on the agenda, he says, and the meeting will be a chance to find out what further information or research Australian states and federal government needed to move ahead to a vote. The following meeting will be another six months from now.

After speaking to Bennett today, Auckland Zoo director Jonathan Wilcken said he was pleased to hear New Zealand is doing good work preparing for the April meeting. He sensed the Government is willing to promote better labelling, but without a set date it was difficult to get a firm commitment on how New Zealand would vote. Bennett told Newsroom he could not say how he’d vote until a vote was scheduled.

“The disappointing thing is … the initial report (recommending clear labelling) was originally submitted in 2009 so we are now eight years down the track, and this is in the face of overwhelming public support,” says Wilcken. “People want to know what’s in their food.”

Zoos estimate palm oil is in about half our supermarket products, including many brands of ice cream, biscuits, soap, chocolate, noodles and toothpaste.

The food and grocery industry opposes the change, saying it will add to costs.

The proposal would mean foods with added sugar and fat would have to list the type of ingredient as well as the generic category (for example, “Added Fats: Palm Oil, Milk Fat”).

“We are concerned all this good work could be diluted by delaying the process,” says Wilcken.

The European Union, the United States and Canada already require palm oil to be identified in products, although its derivatives can appear under dozens of different scientific names.

In the European Union the labelling change led to a large increase in demand for certified sustainable palm oil.

Overseas reports have recently raised questions about how ethical so-called “sustainable palm oil” is, with tangled supply chains from plantations in Asia making it hard to verify worker conditions and allegations of exploitation.

Stat News this week reported cases of chemical poisoning linked to producing sustainable-certified palm oil in Indonesia.

Companies like Unilever, PepsiCo, Kellogg and Nestle have committed to buying palm oil that comes from plantations sticking to environmental and human rights standards.

Wilcken says it is “absolutely” possible to grow palm oil sustainably, but it’s difficult to discuss good ways to support sustainable production when people don’t even know whether it is in their products.

“There’s nothing inherently evil about palm oil, it’s just the process of farming it that is destructive,” says Wilcken. “The difficulty is identifying it. It is very difficult to discuss it with the public if we can’t even tell them which products have palm oil in them. It would be nice if companies felt pressure to use sustainable palm oil, and if people can choose to use products with palm oil or not it means companies choosing sustainable palm oil can market it that way.”

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