It's not often that the likes of Greenpeace will jump to defence of a multinational food company, but it made an exception for Ferrero. The confectionery firm’s Nutella spread was thrust into the spotlight in June thanks to France’s environment minister.
“We have to replant a lot of trees because there is massive deforestation that also leads to global warming. We should stop eating Nutella, for example, because it’s made with palm oil,” Ségolène Royal told the French television network Canal+.
France has got form when it comes Nutella-bashing – in 2012 a “Nutella Tax” was proposed on the basis that the 100m pots the public were getting through every year were fuelling obesity. But this time some unlikely supporters jumped to the brand’s defence.
In a blogpost, Greenpeace’s global palm oil coordinator, Suzanne Kroger, pointed out that Ferrero is “actually one of the more progressive consumer- facing companies when it comes to palm oil sourcing. Responding to the demands of their customers, Ferrero was one of the first companies to announce a policy to end the use of deforestation palm oil.”
Since January this year, the group’s products have been “produced with only palm fruit oil that is 100% certified as sustainable and segregated according to the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil [RSPO] supply chain”, according to its website.
Greenpeace has in the past been a critic of the RSPO – a report in 2013 suggested that the certification scheme is “not protecting international household brands from the risk that the palm oil they use is tainted with deforestation”. It isn’t alone: others have long called for the standards to be tightened.
Over the last couple of years, even supporters admit the RSPO has lost some ground because of inertia and conservative elements within it. Talks are beginning to bear fruit, however. The definition of “no deforestation” – a major sticking point – will hopefully be addressed through the development of RSPO+ – an add-on to the RSPO standard to demonstrate no deforestation on the ground rather than just on paper.
Several of the largest users are already heading in that direction. Nestlé has committed to a no deforestation policy, for example. As has Ferrero. But while the bar is being raised, companies appear reluctant to shout about it. If Ferrero had been more vocal, perhaps the message would have got through to Royal? The company declined an interview request from Footprint.
Adam Harrison is a senior policy officer at WWF, one of the RSPO’s founding members. He says he repeatedly comes across business, particularly in the food sector, which are reluctant to talk about palm oil. “It’s an industrial vegetable oil ... people just don’t want to go there,” he explains. “They don’t want to get into complicated discussions about the ins and outs.”
This meant many were not even labelling the ingredient as such on packs. Thanks to December 2014’s EU law on food information to consumers, though, manufacturers can no longer get away with generic titles such as “vegetable oils” – the label has to say “palm oil”. This prompted a surge in RSPO-certified palm oil, but very few companies have gone on to use the RSPO logo on their packaging. “It’s partly down to the large amount of information on products already and partly because they don’t want to draw attention to the fact palm oil is in there,” says Harrison. “In most cases brands don’t see the value in talking to their consumers about it since the awareness of the issues is so low.”
This doesn’t concern him too much. “Where brands have been better at communicating is business-to-business – in particular retailers in north-west Europe have really driven manufacturers to engage and change sourcing practices,” Harrison adds.
Soon there will be a chance to assess just how much progress has been made. Many of the big food brands have 2015 commitments relating to the sourcing of certified sustainable palm oil, and they will be held to account on those in WWF’s 2016 palm oil scorecard.
The case of mistaken identity caused Royal – a politician keen to assert her authority in the run-up to the key climate change talks in Paris later this year – to backtrack with “one thousand apologies”. Hopefully those who have made commitments will not be left similarly red-faced.