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Food Standards Amendment (Truth in Labelling—Palm Oil) Bill 2010

Speeches in Parliament
Rachel Siewert 23 Jun 2011

Senator SIEWERT (Western Australia—Australian Greens Whip) (09:32):  It is with great pleasure that I stand here today to talk about this bill. The title of the dissenting report by Senator Xenophon and the Australian Greens into this bill—'Oils ain't oils'—says it all, and I must give Senator Xenophon credit for it. And it is true, because palm oil is not just a vegetable oil. If you read food packaging today you would believe it is just a vegetable oil. Well, we do not believe it is just a vegetable oil, nor do a large number of Australians. And this is at the heart of this particular bill. Because we do not believe it is just a vegetable oil, we believe that needs to be labelled on the packet so that people have choice.

This bill aims to provide consumers with information to make an informed choice about the products they choose to buy and consume. Most people probably do not know that 50 per cent of products on supermarket shelves—from household products to food items to cosmetics—contain vegetable oil. Because that is not labelled, consumers cannot look at the packet and know that they are buying a product that contains palm oil. They think they are just buying an innocuous product called vegetable oil. So the aim of this bill is to enable consumers to have that choice.
Of course, there are a number of reasons why we want consumers to have that choice. We are severely concerned about the impact that some forms of palm oil have on biodiversity, rainforests and, therefore, orangutans. It has been calculated that an orangutan dies every two hours in the clearing of rainforest for palm plantations. Not all palm oil is from plantations where rainforest has been cleared, but a lot is. There is a very strong connection between the clearing of rainforest and palm oil plantations.
Efforts are being made to promote sustainable palm oil but, at the moment, unfortunately there is not an accurate tracking system and it cannot be guaranteed that palm oil is sustainability produced. That is why Senator Xenophon will later talk in more detail about the amendments that we have proposed to this bill. Those amendments were developed after this bill went to a committee inquiry—and I am sure Senator Moore will also talk about that inquiry. We took a lot of evidence from witnesses who supported this bill very strongly and from witnesses who did not—and I will go into that in a little more detail shortly. Because of the relatively short time frame we were unable to have a large number of witnesses, but we did have two days of hearings and we gathered quite a lot of evidence.
Another important point raised was the health outcomes from the saturated fats in palm oil. Under the current food labelling regulations, palm oil can be labelled as just a vegetable oil. We do not believe this gives consumers enough choice. They do not know whether that means sunflower oil, just plain vegetable oil, cotton seed oil, soya bean oil or, in fact, palm oil. The provisions of this bill, we know, were supported by COAG and the Australia and New Zealand Food Regulation Ministerial Council review on food labelling law and policy, commonly known as the Blewett review instead of that mouthful. To remind senators of their recommendation, they said that where sugars, fats or vegetable oils are added as separate ingredients in a food, the term 'added sugars, added fats and/or added vegetable oils' should be used in the ingredients list as the generic term, followed by a bracketed list—for example, 'Added sugars: fructose, glucose syrup or honey' or 'Added fats: palm oil, milk fat, vegetable oils, sunflower or palm oil'. In other words, this is picking up on a recommendation from the Blewett review.
I know we will hear it argued in this chamber that we need to wait—you have to give time for the government to consider the Blewett review. I have been in this chamber for six years. Every time issues about labelling have come up I have been told: 'You have to give this time, Senator. It takes time to consult the Australian community. It takes time to consult with the states and territories.' Well, I am sorry, but you have run out of time. It is time that we made a move and put this amendment in place.
I remember when I was seated over there on the opposition bench, arguing this case about labelling foods. I remember when I was seated over there arguing the case for better labelling laws. I have sat in estimates for six years, questioning FSANZ about what they are doing about labelling, and we have had no action. It is time now that we had some action. I am very pleased to hear the coalition say that they are going to support this particular bill, because it is a very important move in the right direction. It is about giving consumers choice, labelling food products so people know what they are buying. They can go to the supermarket, pick up a packet of biscuits, look at whether it has palm oil or not and make a choice. They may make the choice that they want to buy it. They also may make a different choice. The key thing here is that they will have the choice. Hopefully, that choice can drive change, because this is also about enabling people to make a choice on what they buy and about trying to drive some change with the choices consumers make.
We had a very good public response to the inquiry on this issue. There were 448 submissions received for the previous inquiry—this was carried out in two stages because of the election—and 48 more received after the election. There was a petition tabled around this issue with 163,917 Australians asking for changes to our labelling laws and to label for palm oil.
I point out that this is not a boycott of palm oil. We did not call for a boycott of palm oil. We have not asked for a ban on palm oil. We are simply asking for products that contain palm oil to be labelled so that people can make a very clearly informed choice. It is what Australians have been asking for. We believe these changes are eminently sensible changes. We believe that this should be the start—and maybe that is what scares the government—of ensuring consumers can read labels and get intelligible information off those labels so that they can make an informed choice.
Do you know that each year Australians consume an average of 10 kilos of palm oil each? But they do not know that they are doing it. Some people may want to do it but, I tell you what: I do not. I know lots of people that do not. But at this stage I do not have a choice. I know some products that contain it and I avoid those, but there are dozens of products where I do not know if they contain palm oil. I want to be able to make that choice. Hundreds of thousands of Australians have indicated they want to make that choice.
This is an important bill. It is an important milestone for labelling products and for giving consumers a choice. And do not forget that there are orangutans that will continue to survive by you making this choice, by passing this bill. Hopefully it means that in the future an orangutan will not die every two hours as a result of clearing rainforests for palm oil plantations. This is not a ban. It is not a boycott. It is enabling people to make choices about what they buy and what they eat. I commend this bill to the chamber.

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