Members of the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) met recently in Parma to discuss, among other items, EFSA’s recommendations for potential restrictions on 3-MCPD, a contaminant generated during processing of vegetable oils. The meeting was an important moment for Malaysian Palm Oil exporters, following over 12 months of negative media coverage in the wake of EFSA’s original report. The meeting focused on technical discussions around the impact of 3-MCPD, and provided little new information. EFSA confirmed that its revised report, including recommendations for EU regulatory actions, should be ready in November.
In 2016, EFSA released a report calling for possible EU limits on Palm Oil, due to the reported presence of “process contaminants”, including 3-MCPD, in vegetable oils. The reason the report is now under revision by EFSA, is due to significant European and international criticism of the findings. Before such criticisms were apparent, the original report made quite an impact.
Most notably, the report led to a significant amount of negative international media coverage for Palm Oil, which received a level of criticism that did not match the report’s findings.
This is particularly true of Malaysian Palm Oil. The EFSA Report’s primary goal was to ascertain the current levels of certain ‘contaminants’ that are generated during the processing of certain foods – including vegetable oils – and to advise whether the EU should regulate to bring down those levels.
The levels of such contaminants in Malaysian Palm Oil have indeed been reduced significantly over recent years, thanks to proactive action from industry. The EFSA report acknowledges this progress –
“While occurrence data from a relatively recent period were used, current industry action to mitigate the formation of 3- and 2-MCPD fatty acid esters and glycidol fatty acid esters during oil refining might have led to a recent reduction in their levels in certain oils, leading to an overestimate of the exposure”
The amount of contaminants in Palm Oil entering the European market has halved in recent years, a track record of self-regulation and progress unmatched by other oilseeds.
Malaysian Palm Oil producers can, and should, feel aggrieved that their proactive efforts to lead the world in reducing such contaminants have not been recognised. Instead, the Malaysian industry that has provided leadership and forward-thinking, is being criticised in European media. It is notable that neither EFSA, nor the EU Commission, has intervened to correct such inaccurate and damaging media reports.
At EFSA’s most recent meeting from 19th-21st September, it was stated explicitly that EFSA has not reviewed or considered the data relating to the industry’s impressive work. This progress will not therefore be taken into consideration in EFSA’s revised report. In other words – the sterling efforts by the Malaysian Government and Palm Oil producers, to reduce contaminants, will not be recognised by the EU authorities.
Criticism of the EFSA Report is not limited to the mis-categorisation of Malaysian Palm Oil.
The Joint Expert Committee on Food Additives (JECFA) of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation/World Health Organisation reported that the conclusions of EFSA were not appropriate, and the European Commission Joint Research Centre (JRC) stated that the methodology used to calculate the EFSA Report ‘has a negative impact on method accuracy’.
The criticism from international organisations was also supplemented by scientific experts and commentators, including in Europe and the U.S.A.
A scientific paper by Drs. Clemens, Hayes, Sundram and Pressman highlighted inaccuracies in the EFSA report such as the quality of the data used, the absence of clinical tests on humans, as well as the complexities and variation in food harvesting, processing temperature, refining, preparation and patterns of consumption that can influence levels of contaminants.
French scientist Jean-François Platon recently noted that ‘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. EFSA, in its conclusions, did not recommend any ban, or restriction, or reduction in the consumption of Palm Oil, and didn’t conclude Palm Oil was carcinogenic’.
Morten Elsoe, a Researcher in Lifestyle Diseases at Aarhus University Hospital, indicated that ‘EFSA did not recommend to stop consuming products containing Palm Oil and there was a need for further studies before they could establish any risk of cancer for people’.
Rob Lyons, of the Institute of Ideas in London, affirmed ‘What certainly does not need to happen is for governments to now intervene on the basis of the original EFSA report. The science has been questioned, and is being reviewed. Intervention now would be nonsensical’.
The pushback against the report forced EFSA to back-pedal. EFSA’s Expert Committee CONTAM announced that it would ‘re-open its scientific opinion’ on Palm Oil, ‘to address the identified scientific divergence’. This is a signal of internal acceptance from EFSA that the original report was flawed and unsound. EFSA has a responsibility to accurately report the truth in its new report, and ensure that credit is given to those who are leading the way in reducing the contaminants already.
However, only 3-MCPD will be considered in EFSA’s revision. Other key issues will not be revised. The EU is moving full speed ahead with regulatory action on another set of contaminants – glycidyl esters (GE). On Monday 25 September, a behind-closed-doors vote was scheduled to set maximum GE levels for infant formula, follow-on formula and food for special medical purposes for infants and young children. It is expected that EU limits on GE will be fully implemented in early 2018, and fully enforced in mid-2019. Limits on 3-MCPD will not be far behind, if the recent EFSA meeting is a guide.
What, then, are the options for Palm Oil producers, if they wish to influence the process?
In Brussels – The European Parliament and Council will now have the next 3 months to consider the GE proposals, after which they will become EU law. In principle, both institutions are open to hearing the views of producers – though, given the European Parliament’s recent hyper-negative resolution on Palm Oil, it’s perhaps unlikely that they will be sympathetic.
In parallel, the Commission’s decision will be referred to the World Trade Organization (WTO). Under WTO rules, countries are required to notify the organization if they are to introduce a law or regulation that will impact another country’s trade. The notification happens through the Technical Barriers to Trade (TBT) Committee. The convention is that implementation of any new rule is frozen for 60 days while consultations occur and stakeholder inputs are accepted. The key objections will be raised by exporting countries in the TBT Committee itself. This represents a more viable potential opportunity for Palm Oil producing countries to examine and question any areas of concern.
But enterprises and economic operators within the EU that will be adversely affected by the rule can also bring up objections via the EU TBT Enquiry Point. This would obviously include major importers and users of palm oil – and any other vegetable oil – in the European Union. This would be a highly technical, and uncertain, process: but if done correctly it could offer an opportunity for Malaysia to raise a formal objection to the new EU limits.
The EU process is nearing its conclusion. It appears as though the final EU conclusions will impose limits on both GE and 3-MCPD, regardless that this may impact some palm oil producers. It also appears that the EU will not give any credit or recognition for the good work done by Malaysian producers in bringing down limits voluntarily in recent years. The revised EFSA report, when published, and any announcement of new limits will likely lead to a new round of anti-Palm Oil media in Europe. It is clear that neither the EU Commission, nor EFSA, feels any pressure or responsibility to assist Palm Oil producers.