How will President Emmanuel Macron’s government handle the populist debate around science and regulation in France? The early signs are encouraging – Macron has criticised US President Donald Trump for his stance on climate change, and has encouraged scientific researchers to come to France.

However, to really make France a home for science, Macron will need to be more transformational. Following public opinion (e.g. on climate change science) is easy. Macron also needs to lead public opinion on scientific matters, if he is to really make a mark.

A good place to start would be in France’s attitude towards palm oil. Environment Minister Nicolas Hulot recently gave a speech committing to ban some palm oil imports. This is misplaced, and suggests that some Ministers want to continue the policies of the past government. It’s worth examining why this is a bad idea from a scientific standpoint.

The current obsession against palm oil relates to its role as a foodstuff, with the release of a report by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), which claims vegetable oils, including palm oil, are unsafe.

The EFSA report claims that vegetable oils create some potentially harmful substances when they are heated, such as when crude vegetable oils are refined to extract impurities – for example, to ensure that the smell of the oil is identical throughout its shelf life. The EFSA indicates that these contaminants appear particularly during deodorisation – which is the high-temperature stage of processing that helps to eliminate bad taste and allows the food to be preserved for longer.

The harmful substances in question are Glycidyl fatty acid esters (GE); 3-monochloropropanediol (3-MCPD); 2-monochloropropanediol (2-MCPD) and their esters. The EFSA arrived at the conclusion these substances could be unsafe and therefore should be restricted, based on studies performed on rats (i.e. animal testing).

The EFSA report is correct that the refining process leads to contaminants; however, that is not the complete story. Palm oil should not be singled out – nor should any vegetable oil. These outcomes are not exclusive to palm oil, but occur in the refining of all vegetable oils, including rapeseed and sunflower. The EFSA, in its conclusions, did not recommend any ban, or restriction or reduction in the consumption of palm oil, and didn’t conclude that palm oil is carcinogenic.

The way forward
In recent months, the EFSA has come under heightened scrutiny from the scientific community which has questioned its results. Research undertaken jointly by the World Health Organisation (WHO) and the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), as well as the EU Commission’s Joint Research Centre (JRC), have all highlighted errors in the EFSA’s approach.

The UN FAO/WHO Expert Committee issued an opinion on these three chemicals, stating that the levels of contaminants identified by the EFSA do not exceed the threshold for safe consumption. The EU’s JRC even questioned the methodology used by the EFSA, noting it ‘has a negative impact on method accuracy’.


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