New Zealand's four largest zoos have joined an unprecedented lobbying effort to force food companies to reveal whether they use controversial palm oil.

After a decade of debate over palm oil, government representatives are soon expected to decide whether its inclusion in any products sold in New Zealand and Australia must be clearly labelled.

Palm oil, derived from the fruit of oil palms, is estimated to be in about half of all products available in supermarkets but can be generally labelled as vegetable oil.

Ahead of the vote, Auckland Zoo, Hamilton Zoo, Wellington Zoo and Christchurch's Orana Wildlife Park have today backed the campaign run by Ask for Choice campaign fronted by the group Unmask Palm Oil.


While authorities say the decision would be made on health grounds - palm oil is high in saturated fat and associated with heart disease - the product has been more prominently linked to the destruction of rainforests in Indonesia and the loss of habitats for critically endangered species.

The lobbying campaign is pushing for the introduction of Certified Sustainable Palm Oil (CSPO), a code certifying palm oil plantations to ensure they are "deforestation free".

Unmask Palm Oil founder Ben Dowdle believed this would ensure the problem didn't shift to other parts of the world and onto oils which were less productive than palm oil, therefore requiring more land.

Palm oil is linked to the deforestation of rainforests in Indonesia and the loss of habitat for critically endangered species, such as orangutans.
Palm oil is linked to the deforestation of rainforests in Indonesia and the loss of habitat for critically endangered species, such as orangutans.

"Consumer pressure in combination with well-enforced local legislation will result in the preservation of pristine rainforest," he said.

"Mandatory labelling will help everyone to choose sustainable palm oil - and, in turn, help Sumatran tigers, orangutans and thousands of other animals that rely on these wild habitats to survive."

But Dowdle remained concerned about transparency around the decision: his group had applied under Australia's Freedom of Information Act and Right to Information Act to see the technical report the vote would likely be based on, but was likely to be denied.

Food Safety Minister Jo Goodhew, representing New Zealand along with nine Australian ministers, said the Government would "consider the advice" of the technical report ahead of the November meeting, which will also be covering a range of other issues.

While the purpose of mandatory food labelling in New Zealand was to provide information about the safety and nutritional value of food, companies could make labelling decisions themselves to meet consumer demands or environmental concerns, she said.


A 2011 independent review had already recommended that where the terms "added fats" and "added vegetable oils" were used in the ingredient list of a food, they should be followed by a bracketed list describing the source of the fat or oil, including palm oil.

"While this recommendation is to address health concerns about high saturated fats contained in some oils, this information will also be of interest to consumers who have ethical concerns."

But Dowdle argued the food industry should not be left to self-regulate over palm oil labelling.

Zoo worker has witnessed forest devastation

Auckland Zoo's primate team leader Amy Robbins has witnessed first-hand the toll of the devastation caused by forest clearance.

Last year, an estimated one third of the 2.6 million hectares of land burned in Indonesia was peatland cleared to make way for palm plantations.

The World Bank estimated the fires cost the country $24.2 billion - a figure that didn't fully capture the long-term health and environmental costs.

"I go over a number of times a year to work with organisations that help orangatans in the wild, and what we've been seeing in an increasing number of orphans and infants coming into the quarantine centres," Robbins said.

Adult orangatans were being injured or shot trying to cross through cleared areas: something expected to increase with annual palm oil production predicted to double to more than 120 million tonnes by 2020.

The Sumatran Orangatan Conservation Programme received the largest contribution from Auckland Zoo's conservation fund: an amount of more than $50,000 each year.

"The Unmask Palm Oil campaign is something that really aligns well with Auckland Zoo, our values and our conservation mission," Robbins said.

"We feel it's extremely important to bring it to the public's attention, and to let people know that they can have quite a big impact on the outcome - if there's no demand, then it's not going to happen."

The Green Party has also been pushing for action.

"The scale of the rainforest destruction caused by unsustainable palm oil production is devastating, and contributes significantly to climate change," said its animal welfare spokesperson, Mojo Mathers.

"Consumers have the right to know what is in their food and should not have to be full-time detectives for every item on our supermarket shelves."

Many leading brands have taken ethical stands over palm industry products, including Nestle, Ferrero, IKEA and, most recently, farming giants Landcorp and Fonterra, which will no longer use palm kernel expeller.

"People just don't want to eat or drink products associated with the destruction of the world's last remaining rainforests," Greenpeace forests campaigner Grant Rosoman said.

Consumer NZ: Kiwis care

Consumer NZ chief executive Sue Chetwin agreed Kiwis were becoming increasingly concerned about palm oil.

A recent UMR poll found 92 per cent of New Zealanders supported mandatory palm oil labelling, with the strongest support in urban areas (93 per cent) compared to rural areas (88 per cent).

Chetwin said her organisation was also in support of a change.

But the New Zealand Food and Grocery Council opposed the move, pointing to the practical problems that companies would face by having to label specific vegetable oils.

"Palm oil is one of more than 70 vegetable oils used in food production for a variety of reasons," chief executive Katherine Rich said.

"Before regulators make detailed listing compulsory there has to be a good health or safety reason for doing so."

Rich said labelling was increasingly being used as an "easy battleground" for issues as diverse as deforestation, animal welfare, obesity and human rights.

"As a country we need to be realistic about what can and can't be solved by a product label."

Further, she argued mandatory labelling would likely mislead consumers by implying that "the world's most sustainable vegetable oil crop is a toxic ingredient that is best avoided".

"The opposite is true. When grown on appropriate farming land, palm oil is the most environmentally sustainable, cost-effective and versatile vegetable oil available in the world today."

Palm oil in products could be sustainably produced or come from one of over 40 different countries, many of which would not face the same environmental concerns, she said.

"A label which says 'contains palm oil' leaves interested shoppers none the wiser."

Dowdle argued these concerns could be addressed with a CSPO code for the products.

The four zoos are urging people to join the lobbying campaign by either visiting "community action stations" set up at the zoos, or visiting the Unmask Palm Oil website.


What's the issue?

New Zealand's four largest zoos have just joined a campaign that calls for the compulsory labelling of palm oil used in food products.

It's expected government representatives will make a call at a meeting in November.

Why the focus on palm oil?

The palm industry has been blamed for widespread deforestation in Indonesia and depriving critically endangered species of habitats.

Campaigners say mandatory labelling would allow consumers to make ethical choices about what products they buy, and back the introduction of a code to certify "sustainable" palm oil producers as "deforestation-free".

Is it all about the environment?

No. Any decision wouldn't be made on environmental grounds, but for health reasons, as is the scope of Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ)'s brief.

Palm oil has high saturated fat content and has been associated with heart disease.

Will the call be made?

Consumer NZ expects FSANZ will back a change.

The NZ Food and Grocery Council opposes a change, citing the practical labelling products it would create.

Its chief executive Katherine Rich also rejects claims made against palm oil by environmental groups, calling it "the most environmentally sustainable, cost-effective and versatile vegetable oil available in the world today".

How you can shop ethically

• A number of non-government organisations have also developed lists of palm-oil free products to help consumers make informed food purchases.
An example can be found here.

• There are a number of mobile phone applications that can be used to determine if there is palm oil in a product. These include applications specific to products sold in New Zealand and Australia, such as the Palm Oil Investigations barcode scanner.