The Guest Blog

Guest blog post by Jean-François Platon, a chemical engineer with more than 40 years of experience working in the food and cosmetics sectors, and an administrator at the AFECG (French Alliance for the Study of Fats.

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 U.S. 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, which claims vegetable oils, including palm oil, were unsafe.

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

The harmful substances in question are Glycidyl fatty acid esters (GE), 3-monochloropropanediol (3-MCPD), 2-monochloropropanediol (2-MCPD) and their esters. 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. 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.

In recent months, EFSA has come under heightened scrutiny from the scientific community questioning their results. Research undertaken jointly by the World Health Organisation and the United Nations Food & Agriculture Organisation as well as the EU Commission’s Joint Research Centre have all highlighted errors in EFSA’s approach. The UN FAO/WHO Expert Committee issued an opinion on these 3 chemicals, stating that the levels of contaminants identified by EFSA do not exceed the threshold for safe consumption. The EU’s Joint Research Committee (JRC) even questioned the methodology used by EFSA, noting it “has a negative impact on method accuracy”.

Earlier this year, in one of its expert meetings, EFSA acknowledged its critics, admitting that it would “re-open its scientific opinion” on palm oil, “to address the identified scientific divergence.” This is an internal acceptance from EFSA that the original report was flawed.

Furthermore, since the report was first released, industry and technical oil centres have developed new technologies and discovered new processes that significantly limit the level of these contaminants. For example, the work of Brian D. Craft of the Nestle Technical Centre in Switzerland found that washing the palm fruit prior to extracting the oil reduced the rate of these contaminants by 95%. Such technological advancements by industry are an important consideration for regulators to take into account.

The scientific situation, then, is clear. Flaws have been identified in EFSA’s report – and EFSA is now revising the report. The political situation is less clear: it is well-known that several of Macron’s Ministers dislike palm oil. It is possible that the flawed EFSA report could be used as an excuse to justify restrictions on palm oil. This would be a bad idea. You cannot regulate effectively while the science is still being reviewed: that would be irresponsible and would undermine any claims to be a pro-science government.

So, how should President Macron proceed in this scenario? It’s simple. His Government should not proceed with any regulation or restriction of palm oil as a food ingredient – certainly not while the science is still being reviewed and revised.

This is a test for the pro-science rhetoric of the new Government. France can be the global scientific hub that the President speaks about – we have the knowledge, the infrastructure, the people, the institutions, and now we have the vision. Perhaps the last missing piece is consistency – to demonstrate that France is committed to following science always – even if it does not confirm our pre-existing bias. What better opportunity than palm oil: it is foreign, controversial, and disliked by the public. Many French, including Macron’s own Ministers, advocate for bans, restrictions and taxes. The scientific community is against a ban, against restrictions, and against ‘Nutella taxes’. If the science on a controversial subject such as palm oil is prioritised ahead of the domestic politics – that is a show of real leadership from the President. That will be a clear signal that he is serious about France becoming a global leader in science, once again.

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