An Explainer on the Malaysian 3-MCPD Walkback

Last week’s post on Malaysia deviating from the CPOPC consensus on the EU’s 3-MCPD limits drew an overwhelming response from industry, government and NGOs alike.
But there was an underlying question among many observers that requires us to go back a step: Why is the EU placing a higher limit on palm oil, and why is this a problem for trade?
There are several aspects to this: the science as it stands; global trade rules; and EU industry marketing.
The science
The three basic and important things to understand about 3-MCPD (3-monochloropropane-1,2-diol) and its esters (3-MCPD-ES) are that:

  1. it is a byproduct in various production processes that occurs in very small amounts. This includes certain processes to make ingredients such as soy sauces, and vegetable oils.
  2. It is found in any number of substances, including breast milk, without a known origin;
  3. The long term health effects in humans are not well-understood.

On this third point, it has been found to be carcinogenic when directly injected into the livers of rats. It also impacts fertility when fed directly to rats in high amounts.
However, the amounts found in foodstuffs are low. The current concern is levels of exposure in infant formula.
A recent study (March 2020) by FSANZ (Food Safety Australia and New Zealand) stated the following:
“FSANZ’s risk assessment indicated there are no public health concerns for estimated dietary exposures to infants from 3-MCPD esters at current exposure levels… There is evidence that the parent compounds glycidol and 3-MCPD (which are released from their fatty acid esters during digestion) can cause adverse effects in laboratory animals. There are no findings from human studies”.
The international approach on 3-MCPD has been to develop a code of practice for the reduction of 3-MCPD in food. This has taken place via JECFA – the Joint WHO/FAO Expert Committee on Food Additives. This code of practice was adopted last year.
The only limits on 3-MCPD are currently on soy sauce in Australia and the EU. The limit in the final product is 0.02mg/kg.
The EU has deviated from this global approach. It has proposed specific limits on 3-MCPD/E for oils going into foods. Moreover, it has set two different levels in the proposal. For fish and most vegetable oils, it would be set at 1.25 ppm; for palm oil it would be 2.5 ppm.
Palm oil generally has higher levels of 3-MCPD/E through its processes. It would therefore seem like a ‘gift’ to palm oil producers that there is a higher limit for palm oil. But this is potentially a Trojan Horse. It’s worth a deeper dive to examine why.
The Trade Aspects
The EU’s deviation from the global approach means it is out on its own in terms of science.
The EU cannot state unequivocally that 3-MCPD has a significant impact on human health as it currently stands. As the WHO assessment shows, there is no science that demonstrates that 3-MCPD levels in current foods have a negative impact. Most palm oil can meet the 2.5ppm limit. Most other oils meet the 1.25ppm limit by default.
If the EU were to introduce a limit that put palm oil and other oils on the same 1.25ppm footing, it would immediately cause international problems; most palm oil could not meet the arbitrary new standard.
The matter would be raised at a SPS Committee meeting at the WTO and struck down. There is no scientific consensus that supports the measure.
So why set the different standard for other oils? Why not set both oils at 2.5ppm and be done with it?
Marketing and labeling
The 2.5ppm limit doesn’t set a trade barrier in the conventional sense. It will allow palm oil to enter the EU. Nor has the EU – at this stage – introduced limits in foodstuffs that would require lower limits for 3-MCPD in finished foods. This would also likely fall afoul of WTO rules.
So, why introduce the levels at all?
What EFSA has done is create a distinction between palm oil and other oils, on supposed health grounds.
The ‘High 3-MCPD’ vs ‘Low 3-MCPD’ could now become a distinction in the European marketplace that can be exploited by other foodstuff makers.
Sound familiar? Think ‘High-Risk, Low-Risk’ ILUC for palm oil biofuels. Now translate that into food term, but with 3-MCPD instead of ILUC.
Further, remember, for example, that French chocolate spread makers have tried to market their spread as ‘palm oil free’ against Nutella – but have had zero success in denting Ferrero’s sales.
They were rebuffed for making environmental claims associated with ‘palm oil free’. They have been unable to make health claims associated with palm oil as there is no associated health claim. 3-MCPD changes that, potentially. Ferrero and others in a similar position should be concerned about a two-tier system that could see them become a target for such marketing campaigns.
A conspiracy theory or a history lesson?
It’s difficult to air these views without sounding like conspiracy theorists. But anyone with a knowledge of palm oil going back decades will understand the problem. If we go back almost 35 years to the tropical oils campaigns of the 1980’s in the United States, it becomes clearer how long this type of behaviour has been going on in global vegetable oil markets.
In the 1980’s, the US soybean industry launched a massive, health-oriented attack on palm oil as it started to claim a greater share of the US market. The scare campaign raised by the US soybean industry resulted in a drop in market share in the US for palm oil – 24 per cent in one year. But it also resulted in replacement with soybean oils and other partially hydrogenated oils, and a resulting massive spike in trans fats in food (palm oil, famously, is free of trans fats). Fast forward to 2006, and the FDA eventually recommended that trans fats be removed from all foods. This prompted a switch back to palm oil: it turned out that the protectionist scare campaigns had led to significantly poorer health outcomes for US consumers in the interim.
It appears that a similar scare campaign is taking place with 3-MCPD and palm oil. The general consumer knows virtually nothing about 3-MCPD. But it can almost be guaranteed that in the next 6 to 12 months there will be campaigns arguing that it can cause cancer.
This isn’t unusual in the world of food campaigning. Numerous health authorities around the world have found bisphenol-A (BPA) to be safe for use in packaging. However, that has not stopped ‘BPA-free’ being a voluntary initiative around the world combined with scare-marketing efforts – despite there being no guarantee the replacements for BPA are safer.
Lessons learned or forgotten?
The consensus position taken by CPOPC on 3-MCPD was formed with most of this history in mind: that a unified position to oppose EU palm oil regulation is beneficial for everyone. But it seems some industry participants want to let the European Union take a win on this issue.
This is misguided.
In these situations, it is more important to think like an EU protectionist, lobbyist or politician than a scientist. Science isn’t what’s pushing this debate; it’s politics. If you were trying to think of the most effective way to keep palm oil out of the European market, how would you do it? Pretty close to the top of the list would be: introduce a regulation that claims, based on ‘scientific studies’ that palm oil might cause cancer. And other oils, by comparison, are a much lower risk. That’s the politics right there.
This is what makes the Malaysian Walkback  from the CPOPC consensus even more baffling.
RSPO and the EU Deforestation Strategy
The RSPO has responded to the EU’s Communication on “Stepping up EU Action to Protect and Restore the World’s Forests”.
The RSPO appears to be generally supportive of the EU policy approach. The submission argues two things in its submission.
First, that RSPO is likely to be able to deliver ‘deforestation free’ palm oil, in line with the EU’s objectives.
Second, for this reason, the RSPO Principles and Criteria could – or should – be adopted into any regulatory approach that the EU takes.
Both of these things could be correct, particularly the former.
But there is something that RSPO is missing in the entire palm oil debate: there are significant political and economic forces in the EU that have no interest in whether palm oil is certified to RSPO standards or not. They simply want palm oil out of the European Union, whether it is for food or fuel.
The 3-MCPD case (see above) is the emerging problem for food. The Renewable Energy Directive (RED) has been the focus of the fuels debate. 
When the RED debate was taking place, the European Palm Oil Alliance (EPOA) was basically silent. It did not support the inclusion of palm oil within the RED scheme, whether it was certified under the (now defunct) RSPO-RED, ISCC or any other scheme.
As a consequence, RSPO and EPOA seem to have missed the fact that the EU’s high-risk/low-risk Indirect Land Use Change (ILUC) approach makes no distinction on whether:

  • Palm oil is certified;
  • Palm oil is produced in a country that is completely deforestation free.

Even if palm oil was produced within the EU, the current rules would not allow it be incorporated into the RED.

The ILUC methodology has no empirical science to it. It calculates a modelled deforestation footprint and argues that increases in palm oil consumption will contribute to deforestation, somewhere.

The question that EPOA and RSPO need to consider going forward is this: What if the EU argues for ILUC for all uses – not just fuel? Certification will not help.

The economic and political forces mentioned above will already be seeking precisely that in the EU’s new approach.

One of RSPO’s greatest assets is that it allows individual companies to argue for their own environmental bona fides. This is valuable when providing assurance to purchasers on deforestation claims. But the battlefield is much bigger. RSPO and EPOA should consider broadening their approach going forward; but they will be too busy playing the EU’s game.

At the same time, RSPO has issued a public call for EU governments to support the development, and take-up, of sustainable palm oil. Various complex regulatory and other options were floated, that EU governments could take.

Instead, here’s a radical idea. If RSPO is serious about wanting European governments to help palm oil, then RSPO needs to ask the EU Commission, and Member State capitals for only 2 things:

1.         Stop introducing discriminatory regulations against palm oil
2.         Stop denigrating palm oil in your public statements

It really is as simple as that.