'Half of supermarket products in Singapore contain palm oil'

Customers at a Cold Storage outlet at Great World City.
Customers at a Cold Storage outlet at Great World City.PHOTO: ST FILE

SINGAPORE - Paper products may just be the tip of the iceberg: Many grocery items here could come from plantations that contribute to the haze.

In an exclusive interview with The Straits Times yesterday, Mr Stefano Savi from the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) said about half of products on supermarket shelves here contain palm oil - from toothpaste and cosmetics to bread and frozen fries. Mr Savi, the global outreach and engagement director of RSPO, a palm oil certification body, added that as much as 80 per cent of global palm oil is uncertified.

"While we are sure about the origins and the sustainability criteria under which 20 per cent of global palm oil is produced, we are not able to claim the same for the other 80 per cent," he said, adding that the 1,400 fires that occurred in Indonesia in the whole of last month were within oil palm plantations.

Errant oil palm plantation owners set fire to adjacent forests to open up new land for growing. Some also use this method to clear their plantations after a crop cycle.

The culprits are difficult to trace as supply chain processes are muddied by factors such as a lack of land ownership information in Indonesia and bulk processing, in which fruits from hundreds of small plantations are trucked to a central mill where they are mixed up.

There are 19 firms in Singapore with RSPO certification, including instant-noodle maker Tat Hui Foods and consumer products company Proctor & Gamble. RSPO does not track products of its certified organisations but Mr Savi, who is based in RSPO's headquarters in Kuala Lumpur, reckons only a handful of products here have its mark.

The low take-up rate could be due to several reasons, he said. Palm oil typically makes up a small part of the formulation of a product, so few firms think it necessary to use sustainable supplies. Distributors who want to sell RSPO-certified products also need to get supplies from RSPO-certified mills and growers.

"Also, in certain markets, palm oil is not perceived positively, so companies won't want to emphasise that palm oil is in their products at all," he added.

About a fifth of the world's palm oil is now certified by RSPO.

The Singapore Environment Council (SEC), which has awarded its green label to over 3,000 products here, does not certify palm oil-based products here, but plans to do so by early next year.

"Not many firms here have RSPO certification, so we are looking to move into that sector because palm oil is used in so many products," said SEC head of eco-certification Kavickumar Muruganathan.

Mr Kim Stengert, World Wide Fund for Nature Singapore director of communications, said a range of certified sustainable palm oil products is not yet available here.

"At this stage, if all the non-certified palm oil products were taken off the shelves, we would have very empty supermarkets," he said.

"Consumers need to be able to express their preference for sustainable palm oil through their purchasing decisions."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 09, 2015, with the headline ''Half of supermarket products here contain palm oil''. Print Edition | Subscribe