Palm oil labelling smacks of hypocrisy

This is written by Dr Ahmad Ibrahim, a fellow of the Academy of Sciences Malaysia.

TRADE between Malaysia and Australia has always been good. Australia supplies beef to Malaysia. Malaysia sells palm oil, rubber and electronic items.

There are obvious reasons why Malaysia-Australia trade relations have been healthy. One is their proximity. The other has to do with the historic links between their business communities.

The strong link was built through many years of educational tie-ups between the two countries. Many Malaysians are products of Australian universities. In fact, many of Malaysia's leading heart specialists and surgeons had their training in Australia.

I myself graduated from Monash University way back when Malaysia used to beat Australia at football. In those days, Australia did not have a good football team. Its popular sports had always been Australian-rules football, or "footie". Soccer became popular only when immigrants from Europe popularised the game in the 1970s.

Australia has always been a destination for immigrants. The pommies who came from Britain were the earliest. They were mostly evicted to Australia. Australia then was the equivalent of our Pulau Jerejak. Nowadays, like Australia, Pulau Jerejak has also become a tourist destination.

Palm oil has for years been one of Malaysia's major exports to Australia. Many Australians love palm oil because of its bland taste. It does not have the fishy taste of soya oil.

Lately, the use of palm oil grew even more because of new nutritional evidence linking heart disease to trans-fats in margarine and shortening. These are not present in margarine made from palm oil. Trans-fats are mainly found in margarine made from partially solidifed sunflower or soya oils.

It often costs much less to make margarine using palm oil because palm oil is naturally semi-solid. Furthermore, because of its balanced composition, plus the lower levels of polyunsaturates, its use in high heat frying is just unbelievably stable.

Many would vouch for the fact that palm oil is the world's best oil for frying. Ask any instant noodle manufacturer in China, Japan, Korea and even Australia. They will tell you that palm oil is superior under high heat.

However, though palm oil is popular among many Australians, there are a few who have developed a dislike for it. They resort to all kinds of claims against palm oil to gain sympathetic financial support to run their outfits. The others who have harboured hate for palm oil are those who view palm oil as threatening their business. Still, others despise palm oil because it comes from Asia.

Despite the proclamation that Australia wants to be close to Asia, there are a few in Australia who prefer otherwise. For this group, their attempt to discredit palm oil goes as far back as the late 1980s and early 1990s. I remember one episode then. There was this maker of potato chips that printed derogatory remarks about palm oil on its labels.

It stated that palm oil was bad for the heart. And its chips were not fried in palm oil. They were, therefore, supposed to be healthier.

But such practices have since stopped. Why? Because there is now overwhelming science-backed evidence that palm oil is healthy and nutritious. Studies confirmed that palm oil can even challenge olive oil. These are not studies done by Malaysians. The positive results on palm oil came out of research done by independent scientists in the United States.

Now that there is no more credible claim against palm oil on grounds of poor nutrition, enemies of palm oil in Australia have cooked up another storm. This time they link palm oil to deforestation. And disappearing orang utans.

Despite all the evidence available to the contrary, this has not stopped some legislators there proposing a new labelling ruling on palm oil. They have proposed that all products that use palm oil must indicate so on the labels. The intention is to discourage consumers from choosing products containing palm oil. If consumers refrain from such products, then demand for palm oil will go down.

This they argue will reduce deforestation and help with the global carbon balance. At least, tropical rainforests will help absorb the massive greenhouse gas emissions from Australia's big mining industries.

What the people in Australia do not realise is that it is the uncontrolled emissions from Australia's big corporations that are doing more harm to the carbon balance than palm oil.

The Australian government has tried to cap such emissions through a kind of carbon tax. But this has generated a lot of opposition from big businesses there. Why? Because any such move would be at the expense of their bottom line. In fact, the issue has become very political. It may even lead to the defeat of the present government.

Instead of dealing with their internal carbon problem, some legislators have chosen to pick on palm oil. This would hopefully shift people's attention away from the carbon tax controversy. It is not only against the very spirit of the World Trade Organisation but also hypocrisy at its best.

The view is misguided and the Australian people should know about this. The palm oil industry has appealed to the good sense of legislators, who are better informed. They should stop the new ruling.

Leave a Reply