The Food and Drug Administration may have made a strike against heart disease last week by moving to rid artificial trans fats from processed foods, but green groups are worried the pro-health move may have an environmental dark side.
The FDA last week told manufacturers to get rid of partially hydrogenated oils (PHOs) from processed foods, the primary source of artificial trans fats linked to heart disease. But as a replacement, manufacturers are likely to turn in part to palm oil. It's cheap, it's plentiful, and it can more or less re-create that creamy, flaky quality that made trans fats such a hit in baked goods.
But palm oil comes from palm plantations, which have been linked to widespread deforestation and human-rights abuses. And that has environmentalists worried that, without attention from outside groups or government intervention, the increased demand for palm oil will mean an increase in the environmental destruction that comes with it.
To be sure, greens don't oppose the latest ban and its artery-opening benefits. They're just worried that there hasn't been enough consideration of the unintended consequences.
"Trans fats are bad and it's a good thing they're banned, but there's a worry that companies will go from something bad to something arguably worse," said Laurel Sutherlin of the Rainforest Action Network. "It's causing a perfect storm of destruction for people and the planet."
After the FDA required that manufacturers label trans fats on food products in 2006, imports of palm oil to the U.S. jumped roughly 60 percent. That's not all due to the labeling requirements—the palm-oil industry was also expanding and its product was getting cheaper—but food manufacturers are likely to continue that trend amid the latest ban on PHOs.
Robert Collette, president of the Institute of Shortening and Edible Oils, said that while there's no perfect drop-in product to replace PHOs, palm oil "will be used as one of the key or primary substitutes." While manufacturers may look to products like sunflower and canola oil for frying or blend liquids with fully hydrogenated oils, palm oil can help provide the solid fat needed for stability in products like baked goods.
"When you need functionality and you want that food to melt in your mouth, like a flaky piecrust or puff pastry, you'll see palm oil be used," said Collette, whose group represents refiners of edible oils and fats. "We can't say how much, but there will be an increase."
That means that environmentalists are feeling pressure to raise awareness about the dangers of palm oil. Palm-tree plantations have been linked to mass deforestation of rainforests in areas like Malaysia and Indonesia, where producers will raze forests to plant new trees. Not only does that force out species like orangutans and Sumatran tigers, it wipes away ecosystems that soak up harmful carbon-dioxide emissions, with climate-change implications.
Groups have also linked the industry to human-rights abuses—a 2013 Bloomberg investigation found that the industry used child labor and exposed workers to dangerous conditions.
The American Palm Oil Council did not respond to a request for comment before press time.
The issue isn't new; critics have been calling for more responsible sourcing of palm oil for years. But the FDA's move provides a flash point of sorts, presenting an opportunity to bring more attention to the problems with palm-oil production.
"We're letting people know that they'd better do their homework," said Rolf Skar, forest-campaign director for Greenpeace. "We've got to keep the pressure up to raise awareness."
But there isn't much that the government can do to offset the impact of the PHO ban. Greens won't be lobbying against the trans-fat rule or trying to kill it, not when the FDA projects it will prevent 7,000 deaths and 20,000 heart attacks a year. The FDA itself isn't taking any action on palm oil along with its PHO rule.
"Not many folks are talking about regulation—even Greenpeace, believe it or not," said Skar. "There's an openness to seeing what the market can do. ... I think most companies understand this now: If they go out into the world without a compliance plan, there's going to be an NGO on their back pretty quickly."
Jeff Conant, international forest campaigner for Friends of the Earth, said there has also been talk of working with the Commerce and State departments to crack down on imports of palm oil linked to deforestation and human-rights abuses, or even for the Securities and Exchange Commission and financial institutions to disclose whether palm oil has been linked to such effects.
All of those moves, however, would come separate from the FDA action. So for the most part, greens will be putting pressure on individual companies to source palm oil responsibly and highlight when it's done poorly.
Many companies work with the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil, which certifies sustainable palm oil and encourages its use. And many have made individual pledges, although a report card by the Union of Concerned Scientists found mixed results, with companies such as Target, Walgreens, and Wendy's not having committed to use products with deforestation-free palm oil.
A possible model can be found in Europe, where a diplomatic mini-spat emerged over Nutella. French ecology minister Segolene Royal called on consumers to stop using the hazelnut spread because it used palm oil. Ferrero, the Italian company that produces Nutella, said it uses only responsibly produced palm oil, and Italian officials condemned Royal's statements (she later issued "a thousand apologies").
While that effort may not have been successful, it's the type of pressure greens say they'll keep putting on companies until a more binding commitment can be made.
"The bottom line is, if we can have mandatory rules on trans fats, then why can't we have restrictions on an industry tied to land grabs and deforestation and human-rights problems?" said Conant.