Iceland supermarket

Reports showing that UK-based supermarket giant Iceland has continued to sell own-brand products containing palm oil despite having pledged to stop doing so by the end of 2018, illustrates not only the pervasive use of palm oil but also how difficult it is to replace it with a better, more environmentally-friendly alternative.

A report from the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) this week said that Iceland- which created an uproar after it made a pledge in April 2018, saying that oil palm was behind the rapid destruction of forests- was still selling 28 own-brand products with palm oil or fat, as well as more than 600 from other brands.

“Iceland will soon realize how expensive it is to replace palm oil. We, human beings, will soon figure out how silly it is to boycott palm oil,” Pietro Paganini, an academic from the John Cabot University in Rome, told The Palm Scribe in an e-mail.

British daily The Independent, quoted an Iceland statement as admitting that replacing palm oil was not an easy matter. “Removing palm oil represents a huge technical challenge: it is not simply a matter of switching to a substitute ingredient. In many cases, the manufacturer has to change its production equipment and processes, often at considerable cost, and this is not something that can be accomplished overnight.”

Agus Sari, CEO of Landscape Indonesia said that with the continuing increase in demand for vegetable oil, it would be difficult to replace palm oil with other vegetable oil without causing worst impacts on the environment because other vegetable oil crops needed much more land to produce the same amount of oil as oil palm.

“Iceland should have only banned the use of destructive palm oil and demand its suppliers of consumption goods containing palm oil to only use sustainable oil,” Sari said.

Paganini, also a member of For Free Choice, a Rome-based think tank advocating consumers’ right to choose based on correct scientific information, said that the report only showed “The incoherence of nothing but a commercial campaign to boost sales.”

Iceland, just like other companies like Barilla and Coop in Italy and Trapa in Spain, is taking advantage of the global commercial war against palm oil started by competing for vegetable oils (Rapeseed and Sunflower) by exploiting people’s fear, to promote its brand and products, he added.

“These companies are deceiving consumers by providing a false claim,” Paganini said.

He also took fault at whoever was investigating Iceland over the matter. “Instead of checking whether or not palm oil has been replaced, they should inquire whether products quality and health have been improved. They will realize that palm oil has been replaced with less sustainable crops. So, no improvement for the environment,” Paganini said.

He also added that recent study shows that once palm oil has been replaced, the level of saturated fat had not been significantly reduced.

“And why not asking consumers about the quality or taste of what they eat? By changing the formula, the good taste is slowly disappearing and we are getting used to eating something very different,” he said.

Iceland, according to the BBC report, argued that the own-brand products containing palm oil still sold on its shelves were old stocks with long expiration date, but the broadcaster said it had also found non-frozen perishable goods such as fairy cakes, hot cross buns and jam tarts – all made with palm oil – are available to buy online. One product carried an Iceland logo saying it was “new”, while there were also frozen own-brand products containing palm oil sits in store.

Sari said that because of palm oil’s efficiency as an oil-producing crop, the best solution would be to continue use certified sustainable oil and drop products containing unsustainably produced palm oil. He also pointed out that palm oil provided a livelihood for millions of people.

Afdhal Mahyuddin, a conservationist with Eyes on the Forest (EoF) said that he was still unclear about the origin of the palm oil in the products still sold by Iceland, or whether those remaining on the shelves contained sustainable palm oil.

But he stressed that there are products linked to deforestation and there are also those produced using sustainability practices. “So not all palm oil is unsustainable and linked to deforestation, but it is true that many in the palm oil industry are still not sustainable,” Mahyuddin said.

John Sauven, executive director of environmental charity Greenpeace UK was quoted in the BBC report as saying that “If they still have old stock on their shelves, they need to make that clear to consumers in order to fulfill the promise they made.”

Iceland’s no palm oil pledge said that by the end of 2018, 100 percent of the supermarket’s own label food lines would contain no palm oil, reducing demand for palm oil by more than 500 tons per year. The supermarket chain did not differentiate between certified sustainable palm oil and those uncertified ones.

The BBC report also quoted a spokesman for consumer organization Ethical Consumer as saying that “If the target has been missed, it should now be revised and the company should be transparent about how they are dealing with problems they have faced in their supply chain.”

Palm oil can be found in everything from cosmetics and body care products to biscuits, as well as biofuels. Oil Palm remains by far, the most effective oil-producing crop with a comparison to the soybean, for example, which needed nine times the area to produce the same amount of oil produced by one hectare of oil palm.

Iceland is rallying the battle cry of many who accuses palm oil cultivation as being behind the rapid deforestation, destroying habitats for endangered species such as orangutans.

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