Senate debates

Wednesday, 21 June 2017


Competition and Consumer Amendment (Truth in Labelling — Palm Oil) Bill 2017; Second Reading

6:01 pm

Photo of Nick XenophonNick Xenophon (SA, Nick Xenophon Team) Share this | | Hansard source

I move:

That this bill be now read a second time.

I seek leave to table an explanatory memorandum relating to the bill.

Leave granted.

I table an explanatory memorandum and I seek leave to have the second reading speech incorporated in Hansard.

Leave granted.

The speech read as follows—


When you're shopping for your weekly groceries at the supermarket, and you turn over the packet to read the ingredients of a bag of chips, a block of chocolate or a box of biscuits, you'd expect that "what you see is what you get".

But, believe it or not, that's not always the case.

And what's being hidden from us is potentially impacting our health, and is destroying the environment.

Palm oil is one of the world's leading agricultural commodities and is widely used.

In fact, palm oil can be found in approximately 40 percent of food products at the supermarket, and every year, the average Australian consumes around 10 kilograms of palm oil without even knowing it.

Instead, under the current food labelling laws, manufacturers are able to label palm oil as "vegetable oil" on their packaging.

Well, for starters, the palm is a fruit, not a vegetable.

Secondly, palm oil is high in saturated fat and low in polyunsaturated fat, and, according to the Heart Foundation, biomedical research indicates that the consumption of palm oil increases the risk of heart disease.

Thirdly, in South East Asia alone, the equivalent of 300 soccer fields are deforested every hour for oil palm plantations, and each year more than 1,000 Orang-utans die as a result of land clearing in this region.

There's no question that the current labelling laws are inadequate and are misleading consumers.

Being allowed to disguise palm oil as "vegetable oil" means that Australians aren't able to make an informed choice for themselves and for their family about what they buy at the supermarket because they're not being given all the facts.

In 2011, when I first introduced a Bill to strengthen labelling laws for food containing palm oil, Zoos Victoria, Adelaide Zoo and Auckland Zoo in New Zealand launched the "Don't Palm Us Off" campaign calling for palm oil to be labelled specifically on food packaging.

In the first twelve months of the campaign, over 130,000 people signed on to show their concern about palm oil.

In November 2016, Zoos Victoria re-launched the same campaign, this time attracting 160,000 signatures.

Yet nothing has been done to ensure consumers can easily determine if products they are purchasing contain palm oil.

In 2011 when my previous Bill was debated in the Senate, the following remarks were made during the second reading debate by the Coalition, who were then in Opposition:

"There are many processes. They go on for a long time. As Senator Siewert outlined, this has been proposed for many years. But there has been no action. So the coalition, in supporting this bill, is simply saying consumers have the right to know what is in the food and goods they purchase. We believe this will improve consumers' ability to make informed choices."

The community is backing these reforms.

Some manufacturers are backing these reforms.

It also seems that when the Coalition was in opposition, they were also backing these reforms.

Yet why isn't it compulsory for palm oil to be specifically listed as an ingredient on all packaging?

Put simply, if we are what we eat, we have a right to know what we are eating, and this Bill will give consumers truthful, accurate and clear information about what they are purchasing.

In the United States, the Code of Federal Regulations requires that each individual fat and/or oil ingredient of a food is to be declared by its specific common or usual name.

That is, palm oil is listed as "palm oil".

Similarly, under the provisions of this Bill, regardless of the amount of palm oil used in the product, palm oil must be listed as an ingredient.

It's important to be clear that this Bill is not calling for a boycott of products which contain palm oil - rather, it is designed to enable consumers to know the whole truth about the ingredients that particular product contains so that they can make their own choice prior to purchase.

Just like the inclusion of wheat in a product is labelled to inform consumers with possible allergies, so too should shoppers be told that palm oil is contained in a particular food product.

When I announced my intention to move my Bill back in 2010, I was contacted by dozens of people, outraged that they didn't know and couldn't tell that palm oil was an ingredient in their food.

Unfortunately, not much has changed.

And I share their frustrations.

Consumers should be able to trust that when the list of ingredients is printed on the packaging, all the ingredients are included in that list.

On the issue of conservation - palm oil can be produced sustainably and manufacturers should be encouraged to use certified sustainable palm oil rather than palm oil which is produced as a result of deforestation and loss of wildlife habitat.

In Malaysia and Indonesia, for example, a farmer will chop down all the trees on his land and sell the timber for money. He'll then burn the stumps and plant oil palm which is fast growing and from which he can crush the fruit to produce palm oil and also sell the shells of the palm fruit as food for cattle.

But by cutting down these trees, Orang-utans lose their habitat. In fact, 90 percent of Orangutan habitat has been lost already and it's forecast that at the current rate of deforestation, Orang-utans could be extinct in the wild in less than 10 years.

And on a broader scale, the environmental impact of deforestation is significant. How can we be serious about looking after the environment, when we're not encouraging businesses to farm sustainably?

Palm oil can be produced sustainably. Under criteria set out by the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil, sustainable palm oil plantations are ones which are established in already cleared land, rather than through deforestation.

It also includes requirements for reforestation along the river-line, bans on pesticides, appropriate labour conditions and wildlife friendly practices.

Manufacturers who use certified sustainable palm oil will be able to list the use of the ingredient as "CS Palm Oil" to indicate its sustainable origins and to show consumers that they are sourcing their ingredient from a sustainable oil palm plantation.

This Bill will encourage food manufacturers to purchase from sustainable palm oil producers and will provide consumers with all the information they need to make their own choice.

Calling palm oil "vegetable oil" is misleading. Not telling Australians that palm oil is one of the ingredients in or used to make a product is unfair.

There have been some significant changes to food labelling laws made in this Parliament and I welcome those changes. However, more can be done and the discontent felt by the community at the lack of action taken on this issue is growing.

Consumers have a right to know and this Bill gives them that right.

I seek leave to continue my remarks later.

Leave granted; debate adjourned.