Plantation Industries and Commodities Minister Datuk Seri Mah Siew Keong says the ‘No Palm Oil’ labels perpetrate a huge injustice against smallholders and other palm oil producers.

A RECENT media article by Plantation Industries and Commodities Minister Datuk Datuk Seri Mah Siew Keong brought the issue of “No Palm Oil” labels to wider attention. The article, “Ethical Labelling: The Way to Go”, highlighted Denmark-based Arla Foods’ use of “No Palm Oil” labels in Malaysia.

Since the article was published, Arla Foods has taken action to remove from sale in Malaysia all products bearing “No Palm Oil” or “Palm Oil Free” labels as they discriminate against palm oil. All of the company’s products with such labels are expected to be removed from sale within 60 days.

Below are the excerpts of a Question and Answer with the minister.

Q: Why are “No Palm Oil” labels on food products such a problem?

A: The ‘No Palm Oil’ labels are meant to mislead the consumer. The labels are not required by law, nor do they provide any information to the consumer. They are there for only one reason — to imply that because a product does not contain palm oil, it is somehow nutritionally or environmentally superior. This is false and an unacceptable attempt to mislead Malaysian consumers.

These labels also perpetrate a huge injustice against smallholders and other palm oil producers, because they build suspicion and negative sentiment in the minds of consumers. We have already seen this in Europe. If such an advertising narrative is not nipped in the bud, it can become ‘accepted wisdom’ even though it is actually false. The labels are, therefore, a serious threat to the continued stability and success of Malaysia’s palm oil (industry). This is why the government is committed to removing the labels.

Q: What alerted you to the problem in Malaysia with Lurpak?

A: The Malaysian Palm Oil Council (MPOC) was extremely diligent in alerting me to the ‘No Palm Oil’ labels on packs of Lurpak spread. It is right that as soon as MPOC discovered the labels, they alerted the government so that action could be taken. I authored an article entitled “Ethical Labelling the Way to Go”, which was a public demand that these labels be removed from products.

Plantation Industries and Commodities Minister Datuk Seri Mah Siew Keong being briefed on Arla Foods’ products by its Southeast Asia vice-president Mark Boots (centre) during a meeting at the minister’s office in Kuala Lumpur recently. With them is Denmark’s Minister Counsellor, Food, Agriculture and Fisheries Nina Hvid Talvela.

Arla Foods (the Danish company that owns the Lurpak brand) is a guest here in our country, and they must be respectful of our rules and national interests. Very shortly after my message in the media, the Embassy of Denmark and Arla Foods contacted the ministry to explain that they heard and understood my message. A meeting was arranged at the ministry on October 5 to discuss how Arla Foods would implement the government’s demand to remove the labels.

Q: What was agreed at the meeting with Arla Foods and the Danish embassy?

A: I set out the government’s position very clearly that the labels must be removed. This is motivated by the need to protect our Malaysian palm oil small farmers, and all of those in the country who depend on palm oil production.

Over two million people, directly and indirectly, rely on palm oil for their income and livelihoods. Palm oil remains an important lifeline for rural communities as 650,000 smallholders depend on it and produce 40 per cent of the production.

We cannot accept that foreign companies come to Malaysia and denigrate our products. Arla Foods has agreed to withdraw and remove all such labels on products within 60 days. I welcome this move and look forward to the policy being fully implemented. The meeting was, therefore, very successful and the outcome benefits all our smallholders.

Q: Do you have a message for other food companies operating in Malaysia?

A: Yes. Arla Foods is not the only foreign company operating in Malaysia that has issues with palm oil, whether through labelling or other means. The government is clear: this will not be tolerated. Our highest priority is protecting and defending the best interests of the people of Malaysia, including all of those who work in our palm oil sector.

To all those companies operating in Malaysia, I have a simple message: you are welcome here, we want you to operate and sell your products here but you, in turn, must be respectful of our products, our people, and yes, our palm oil.

Deputy Prime Minister Datuk Seri Dr Ahmad Zahid Hamidi has also said recently that the government will not be silent on any campaign against palm oil and will give a fitting response to those who harmed the palm oil industry.

The DPM has called on everybody to respond rationally to all negative campaigns against palm oil with facts and figures on the issues of deforestation and destruction of wildlife.

He also pointed out that the industry was facing unprecedented challenges such as anti-palm oil campaigns particularly in the European Union, which systematically sidelined the palm oil industry.

Q: Most “No Palm Oil” labels are found in Europe. How do you plan to tackle those labels that are prevalent there?

A: My ministry has been addressing this issue head-on. I met personally with the EU (European) Commissioner and several Members of the European Parliament, in my most recent trip to Europe. MPOC has also been conducting effective campaigns against the “No Palm Oil” labels in Europe. More can and must be done. Many of the companies using the labels are also members of the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO). RSPO rules state that the labels are not allowed — these rules must be enforced and RSPO must ensure that none of its member companies use such negative labelling.

Q: Finally, will the new Malaysian Sustainable Palm Oil (MSPO) certification help with removing the “No Palm Oil” labels?

A: Absolutely. MSPO is a game-changer for the Malaysian palm oil sector. It will allow smallholders to achieve certification, an important and necessary advance for the sector. MSPO is also a message to the world — a mandatory scheme, undertaken by the government and designed using international best practices. MSPO illustrates Malaysia’s commitment to lead the world in palm oil sustainability. Through MSPO, we will ensure that smallholders will also have an equal opportunity to participate in a certification scheme and can gain market access later.

During our meeting on October 5, Arla Foods said it is committed to working with the government on MSPO. The Danish embassy further stated that it supports sustainable palm oil production and will continue constructive dialogues with the Malaysian government to find long-term sustainable solutions of high global standards that benefit consumers, rural farmers, industry and other stakeholders. It’s important that MSPO gains such a wider acceptance as this will be essential to delivering full value to our smallholders.

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