The Australian not-for-profit organisation Palm Oil Investigations (POI) has launched a new mobile phone app that shows consumers whether products contain palm oil and, if they do, the scan reveals the oil’s certification status.
“The app helps consumers to make an informed choice,” said the founder and president of POI, Lorinda Jane. “Brands that are doing the right thing need to be commended, not boycotted, so that other brands follow suit.”
Scan results fall into five categories:
- Palm Oil Free
- Active no-deforestation policy
- Round Table on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) Certified Sustainable Palm Oil (CSPO)
- RSPO Mass Balance (certified and uncertified oil mixed together)
The new app, which was conceived by POI and developed by Spectrum Solutions, based in the United States, is the first to identify the certification status of palm oil.
Spectrum Solutions worked previously with the El Paso Zoo in the United States to develop a palm oil scanner, but that app only scanned food products and only showed whether they contained palm oil or not. The POI one is much more sophisticated.
“In the US, barcodes show ingredients, but in Australia, they don’t,” Jane said. “So our app is very different.”
According to the WWF, about half of the packaged food in supermarkets contains palm oil. It is present in all kinds of produce, ranging from biscuits and peanut butter to chocolate and ice cream; it’s in all kinds of ready meals and breakfast cereals, and in shampoo, cosmetics, shaving cream, soap, and industrial lubricants.
Over the past 25 years, the total oil palm plantation area has tripled, with current global estimates of more than 15 million hectares.
According to the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), oil palm plantations are the leading cause of rainforest destruction in Indonesia and Malaysia, who together produce close to 90 percent of the world’s palm oil.
The new POI application is free to download and is available for iPhones and Android. The data base only covers products from Australia and New Zealand, but people in other countries can scan those products and will get a reading if the original barcode is still there.
The POI app team is a group of just four people, three of whom have been working around the clock to get the new scanner up and running. They are working towards including products from the United Kingdom in the data base, and will eventually extend the app to other countries such as the United States.
Users have the option to share the scan results on the POI Facebook page. When there is an RSPO Mass Balance or FAIL result, the app will automatically suggest an alternative product and the consumer can send an automated email to the brand’s customer service department encouraging the company to shift its product or products into one of the three higher categories.
Jane (pictured left) says the app has been developed to pressure brands to ensure that the palm oil used in their products is not contributing to deforestation, worker exploitation, destruction of the ecosystem, or the extinction of wildlife species. It is, she says, placing power in the hands of the consumer.
She says she is confident the app will change how people shop and give consumers the confidence that the products they are purchasing aren’t impacting on the environment.
“Because of the lack of labelling laws in Australia, palm oil is a hidden ingredient and it is often impossible for consumers to identify it,” Jane said. “There are more than 200 names for it.”
The most common name used for palm oil is the generic term vegetable oil, and other names used in food production are emulsifier 471 and humectant glycerol.
Palm oil can be found in about 40 percent of items on supermarket shelves, Jane says. “To date, our team has loaded more than 110,000 products into the app.”
The demand for the app is growing every day, Jane says. “Our social media followers are constantly asking whether the products they are purchasing are palm oil free and, if they aren’t, whether the palm oil has been sourced ethically. This app removes any confusion as the consumer gets an answer as soon as the product is scanned.”
The number of multinational companies that say they are committed to supplying and using only deforestation-free palm oil has grown rapidly over the past year, but peat forests are still being burnt to a cinder to make way for oil palms, orangutans and tigers are being pushed closer to extinction, land-grabbing continues, and many people are working for slave wages on plantations, including those run by RSPO members.
“Our app will help save critically endangered species by forcing brands to engage actively with their palm oil suppliers to ensure that their products are not contributing to deforestation and wildlife extinction,” Jane says.
“Many brands are lagging behind and are contributing to the problem. The solution lies in regulating palm oil because, no matter how much consumers decide to boycott palm oil, it is here to stay.”
Jane says it took POI about 18 months to research all the products and load the data. “When we purchased the barcode data, the only information listed against each code was product name, company name, and the type of product. There was no information about ingredients. We had to research every product one at a time, determine if palm oil was present, then look into certification status. It has been a huge job.”
The scanner is already Number One in Apple’s list of top free food and drink apps.
The executive director of the UK-based Orangutan Land Trust, Michelle Desilets, said the most effective aspect of the scanner was that it allowed people to communicate with companies about palm oil, and tell those companies what they expect of them. “That is more important than simply telling people which products they should avoid.”
Achieving sustainability is a journey, Desilets says, and the new app helps consumers to see which companies are ahead of the field, and worthy of their custom, and which ones are lagging behind.
“It will help encourage companies to source deforestation-free CSPO. Pressure on the manufacturers translates into pressure on the suppliers.”
The greatest threat to the survival of the orangutan is the conversion of their forest habitat to unsustainable palm oil, Desilets says. “Therefore, the most important strategy to save the orangutan is to ensure that palm oil is produced sustainably and not at the expense of the orangutan and its habitat.
“This new tool allows the public to be an active partner in the conservation of the orangutan.”
Palm oil is a cheap, high-yield oil and it’s been estimated that replacing all palm oil on the global market with another oil would take up between five and eight times as much land.
Oil palm, Desilets says, can be grown sustainably in areas without forests or peat. “In Borneo alone, some 14 million hectares of unforested land could be suitable for expansion, and this far exceeds the next 50 years’ production or expansion. There is also a lot of unforested land in peninsular Malaysia that could be used.
“If people boycott products containing palm oil, the company in question won’t see statistics showing exactly why that product was rejected. People need to go to manufacturers and retailers and ask questions about sourcing: where the palm oil comes from, whether it is CSPO, and whether it is deforestation- and conflict-free. If you are just not buying, the message doesn’t get to the right department.”
The director of the Sumatran Orangutan Conservation Programme (SOCP), Ian Singleton, says the new app will make it easier for consumers to exercise choice, and that, he says, is a great leap forward.
“With the speed of hi-tech development these days, the world is becoming a far more transparent place. The smart companies are slowly beginning to realise that everything they do can be seen, measured, and shared around the world 15 times before breakfast.
“What we need now is for companies to come clean on exactly which other companies they buy from, and which they own. If they really want to earn the respect and trust of consumers, they have to start making that kind of information public.”
The successful launch of the POI app has been marred by threats directed at Lorinda Jane in an extremely menacing anonymous letter.
Jane discovered the letter last Tuesday (March 24), ahead of the launch of the POI app. The writer said: “If our company is listed unfavourably we will be your worst enemy.”
If the listing had a negative effect on the company, the letter said, Jane and her daughter would both need to “watch your back”.
Jane thinks the threats may have come from one of the small companies POI has contacted in the process of developing its app.
A police investigation is underway.
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