Within weeks of a strongly-worded media commentary ( see ‘Apply Ethics Not Technicalities’ ) by Datuk Seri Mah Siew Keong, the Malaysian Plantation Industries and Commodities Minister, Denmark’s Arla Foods responded to his objection to the ‘No Palm Oil’ label on Lurpak dairy products. At a meeting on Oct 5, it pledged to withdraw all its products carrying the label, from sale in Malaysia, within 60 days.
In an interview, Datuk Seri Mah elaborates on this and the core issues that he raised in his commentary.
Why is the ‘No Palm Oil’ label on food products such a major concern?
The label is meant to mislead the consumer. It is not affixed to products because of a legal requirement; neither does it provide any relevant information to the consumer. It is there for only one reason – to imply that, because a product does not contain palm oil, the product is somehow nutritionally or environmentally ‘superior’. This is false and unacceptable, as it attempts to mislead consumers.
The label also perpetrates a huge injustice against palm oil producers, including smallholders, because it builds suspicion and negative sentiment in the minds of consumers. We have already seen this in Europe.
If this advertising narrative is not nipped in the bud, it could become ‘received wisdom’ even though it is false. The label is therefore a serious threat to the continued stability and success of Malaysian palm oil. This is why the government is committed to removal of the label.
What alerted you to the problem in Malaysia with the Lurpak brand of products?
The Malaysian Palm Oil Council (MPOC) was extremely diligent in alerting me to the label on packs of Lurpak Spread. The MPOC acted correctly, so that the government could take action.
Arla Foods is a guest in our country, and must be respectful of our rules and national interests. The Embassy of Denmark and Arla Foods contacted my Ministry to explain that they heard and understood my message [in the commentary]. A meeting was arranged at the Ministry on Oct 5, to discuss how Arla Foods would implement the government’s demand to remove the label.
What was agreed at the meeting?
I set out the government’s position very clearly, that the label must be removed. This was motivated by the need to protect Malaysian oil palm small farmers and all those in the country who depend on palm oil production.
More than one million people directly or indirectly rely on palm oil for their income and livelihood. Palm oil remains an important lifeline for rural communities, as 650,000 smallholders depend on it and produce 40% of the national output. We cannot accept moves by foreign companies that come to Malaysia and denigrate the product.
Arla Foods has agreed to remove the label on its products [sold in Malaysia] within 60 days. I welcome this move and look forward to the policy being fully implemented. The meeting was very successful, and the outcome will benefit our smallholders.