Tuesday, 23 August 2011

Palm Oil in Super Noodles

Palm oil is used in many foods and household products. It is also increasingly being used as a feedstock for biofuels. The demand for palm oil is resulting in peatlands being drained and forests being cut down in south-east asia to make way for vast palm oil plantations. BFTF recently noticed that an ASDA own brand product that it had bought contained palm oil so asked ASDA what assurance they could give that the palm oil had not been grown on land that had been reclaimed from forest or peatland (see here). Having gone to effort of finding out about the issues and drafting up an email in the case of ASDA, it is a relatively easy job to now ask a similar question of the makers of that British Tea Time Favourite - Batchelors Super Noodles.

BFTF has to say that it is a big fan of noodles, not least because they are a food that kids can cook for themselves from a relatively early age (BFTF, you are a BAD parent !)

So, getting back to the matter at hand, BFTF sent the following to Batchelors via their feedback form.

"I recently bought a packet of Batchelors Mild Curry Super Noodles and note, with concern, that it contains palm oil. What assurance can you give me that the palm oil used in this product has been grown on land that has not been reclaimed from peatland, or forest."
Dear reader, you may wish to nudge a supermarket or other retailer in the right direction regarding some item that you purchase. There are lots of areas where producers can be held to account - treatment of workers, care for the environment and animal welfare being just three.

This last item - animal welfare - is an area where the Muslim community (BFTF certainly included) perhaps needs to take a look at itself and ask whether it is demanding the level of animal welfare for livestock and poultry that Islam mandates. For example, - is keeping a chicken in a tiny cage for its entire life consistent with Islamic teachings on kindness to animals?

And of course, this type of action is an area where the Muslim Community can find common ground with the wider society and work together to achieve positive change. This is perhaps a much more productive approach than being active only in areas where the Muslim community wants some kind of special treatment.
We can't do everything, but we can all do something - and as grocery shopping is one of the biggest of the household expenditures it can be used to do a lot of good if we choose to.

UPDATE (28 Aug 11)
Received a response from Premier Foods saying that they were a member of the Ethical Trading Inititive (ETI), which is potentially a GOOD THING, but perhaps not quite relevant to the question of Palm Oil agriculture as the ETI is primarily focussed on the rights and working conditioms of workers, rather than the sustainability of raw materials.

Premier foods also said that they obtained their Palm Oil from a "sustainable source" and that they were "committed to using ingredients from sustainable sources".

BFTF was a little concerned a Palm Oil plantation might be "sustainable" going forwards, but not all all sustainable if you considered that it had been carved out of irreplaceably forest or peatland. To try and clarify things a little further, BFTF sent back the following (over two emails, but combined together below for clarity):
"I am glad that Premier Foods is a founding member of the ETI and would certainly encourage you to ensure that all the workers in your supply chain are paid a living wage and that your subcontractors and suppliers fully meet the requirements of the ETI base code. If you were able to state that this was the case on your product packaging, it would be a powerful incentive for me to buy your products over those of your competitors.

Having said that, I am not sure how the ETI is relevant to this issue at hand as there is no reference to environmental sustainability in the ETI base code (so far as I can see). Also, while your suppliers of palm oil may have plantations that are "sustainable" on an on-going basis, that is not quite what I asked.

My question was to ask "What assurance can you give me that the palm oil used in this product has been grown on land that has not been reclaimed from peatland, or forest."

I have asked a similar question of ASDA in relation to one of their products and they have told me that whilst they cannot guarantee that their palm oil has been grown on land that has not been reclaimed from forest or peatland at the moment, they hope to be in a position to do so soon. I'm hoping that Premier Foods is making similar efforts and can let me know when they intend to me in a position to make a similar guarantee (perhaps they already are?)

I note that it says that Premier Foods is "committed to using ingredients from sustainable sources".I am a little unclear as to what this means. Does it mean that:
a) All of Premier Foods ingredients are sustainably sourced now.
b) All of Premier Foods ingredients will be sustainably sourced at some undefined point in the future.
c) Some of Premier Foods ingredients are sustainably sourced now and you are working on the rest.
d) Something else.
I am also a liitle unsure as to what Premier Foods definition of "sustainability". Do you have a policy on this that you could point me towards?"

No doubt there will be further updates to this post in future!

UPDATE (12 Sep 11)
Received a further response from Premier Foods, this time actually addressing the issues at hand. The person handling the question from BFTF has, it seems, asked the Head of Science for some information on the issue, and they have responded with a policy statement. The statement is rather reassuring and states that Premier Foods is a member of the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) (see here) and that, since January 2010, they have sourced 100% of their Palm Oil using the Green Palm programme. It goes on to recognise that:
"areas of tropical rainforest are being converted to agricultural use, in Malaysia and Indonesia, to facilitate the extension of palm oil plantations. . . .We have been advised that there is sufficient existing cleared land in the region not currently being put to agricultural use that could, and should be utilised to meet the increasing global demand for palm oil, in preference to clearing additional rainforest."
The Green Palm Progamme (see here) is endorsed by the RSPO. The RSPO, in turn works on a series of "Principles and Criteria" (see here).

Somewhat surprisingly, these cover a wide range of issues, covering issues such as workers rights, soil fertility and ensuring respect for land owned by local communities. The key ones from the perspective of the issue at hand are
"Criterion 7.3: New plantings since November 2005, have not replaced primary forest or any area required to maintain or enhance one or more High Conservation Values.
Criterion 7.4: Extensive planting on steep terrain, and/or on marginal and fragile soils, is avoided.
If (and on hopes that is a small "if" and not a big "if") the palm oil producers are actually adhering to these criteria then that is a VERY GOOD THING.
So, to close out this dialogue, BFTF sent the following :
"Thank you for this comprehensive response. I am glad to see that Premier Foods is a member of the RSPO. I have read the RSPO ""Principles and Criteria" and been greatly heartened by the breadth of coverage they give to environmental sustainability and to the rights of workers and local communities.

I would urge Premier Foods to ensure that the Palm Oil suppliers working in the Green Palm programme genuinely implement these Principles, including Criteria 7.3 and 7.4 relating to conservation of primary forests and areas of high conservation value.

Thank you for taking the time to answer my questions.

Somewhat to my own surprise I now find myself able to tell you that I think I can buy Batchelors SuperNoodles with a clear conscience (which will be a tremendous relief to my kids!) and that this will continue to be a regular purchase for me.

I am placing my trust in you. Please don't let me down.
Dear Reader, perhaps there is an issue that you feel strongly about regarding the practices of a company or organisation. If so, why not challenge them to explain themselves. As many NGO's who have been guests on the Building for the Future radio show have said, it does not take may people to complain about something before panic sets in at Head Office and changes are made. . . .

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