Shoppers trying to make ethical choices may be picking products that contain the very thing they are trying to avoid, a select committee has heard.
Under joint New Zealand and Australian labelling laws, food products containing palm oil can be labelled generically as having "vegetable oil" as an ingredient, making it impossible to avoid, Unmask Palm Oil campaign director Ben Dowdle said.
Palm oil, a widely used edible vegetable oil, might be an ingredient in products like ice cream, chocolate, margarine, cosmetics and shampoos, he said.
But it is tainted by its ecological cost - widespread deforestation in Indonesia and Malaysia to create palm oil plantations has led to the loss of habitat of the orangutan, tigers and elephants, pushing them to "the edge of extinction".
Dowdle presented a petition with more than 7500 signatures to parliament's commerce committee today, calling for the mandatory labelling of palm oil which would be "what Fair Trade is to coffee," he said.
When palm oil was grown in sustainable conditions, it was no different to any other vegetable oil.
The campaign was not calling for a boycott of palm oil products, but a new labelling policy expected to strengthen the market for certified sustainable palm oil through consumer awareness, Dowdle said.
The present system was "fragmented and confusing", and the mix of generic and voluntary labelling penalised companies that elected to declare palm oil as an ingredient in products.
Dowdle pointed to an example from Australia, where Woolworths had voluntarily labelled hot-cross buns as containing palm oil, and were boycotted by consumers who thought they were switching to more ethical products.
But, the competitors' hot-cross buns also contained palm oil - it was just labelled generically as "vegetable oil", and Woolworths was effectively punished for its transparency, Dowdle said.
Clearer labelling of vegetable oils, fats and sugars as recommended by an independent panel commissioned by the Australian and New Zealand Food Regulation Ministerial Council would create a "level playing field" for companies and empower consumers in their product choices.
It would also bring New Zealand's legislation in line with that already in place in the United States and the European Union.
Next May Food Safety Minister Nikki Kaye will join ministers from every state and territory in Australia at a legislative forum on food regulation, that will decide if mandatory labelling should go to public consultation.