The problems with palm oil

This article first appeared in The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on March 5, 2018 - March 11, 2018.

Chandran: 3MCPDE is the biggest challenge to the palm oil industry because food safety is non-negotiable. Patrick Goh/The Edge

-A +A

WHILE the European Parliament’s plan to phase out palm oil from member states’ consumption of bio-fuel by 2021 is dominating headlines, a bigger threat to the industry is the issue of food safety.

The presence of 3MCPDE (3-Monochloropropane-1, 2-diol esters) and GE (Glycidyl esters) in refined vegetable oils, including palm oil, could become a bigger headache for the industry if it is not addressed effectively. Two compounds in particular — 3-MCPD and glycidol — pose health risks to humans as they could be carcinogenic.

The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) has found that among vegetable oils, palm oil has the highest levels of the contaminants.

“Currently, more than 80% of palm oil is consumed as food, therefore food safety is obviously of paramount importance to industry and consumers alike,” industry veteran M R Chandran tells The Edge.

He notes that although 3-MCPD is loosely mentioned as the problem, what is found in palm and other oils is mainly the fatty acid ester of 3MCPD (or 3MCPDE). Digestion of 3-MCPDE and GE in the gut releases 3-MCPD and glycidol, which have been categorised as possible carcinogens.

“3MCPDE is the biggest challenge to the palm oil industry because food safety is non-negotiable,” Chandran says.

Chemical engineer Ng Say Bock, who has over 40 years of experience in the palm oil industry, explains that bad-quality oil — oil that has broken down — has a high level of diglycerides, which will react to form 3MCPDE during processing in the presence of chloride (found in water and some fertilisers) and high temperature.

“The problem is compounded when crude palm oil reaches the refineries where the temperatures are much higher,” he says.

The contaminants may have been brought by debris such as sand, stones, mud, wood and leaves that soil the fresh fruit bunches (FFB) during harvesting. In the mill, there are no facilities to completely remove the debris before the FFB are processed. During processing, equipment such as sand catchers, de-stoners and de-sanders have limited efficiency in removing the debris.

Furthermore, some mills, under pressure to meet target oil extraction rates (OER), have resorted to recycling “technical grade” palm oil.

“Palm oil is mechanically extracted and the extraction efficiency is about 92%. Some of the balance of 8% can be recovered and recycled. By right, this oil should be sold separately as technical grade palm oil. But if you emphasise high OER, mills with low OER will recycle it,” Ng explains.

Malaysia has a target of reaching OER of 23% by 2020. In 2017, the OER was 19.72%.

What can be done to reduce the level of 3-MCPDE and GE? Estates need to send in fresh fruits free of debris and mills need to stop recycling recovered oil, and remove chlorides from the water used in the milling process, Ng says.

Chlorides are one of the components that react with oil to form 3MCPDE. “Chloride is highly soluble in water and is found in river water and present in water in varying quantities. Estates use ammonium chloride fertilisers. So, there is more than one source of chlorides. They are water but not oil soluble. Washing the CPO with chloride-free water is one way to remove chloride from the mill or refinery,” Ng explains.

In 2017, the Ministry of Palm Industries and Commodities (MPIC) offered grants to mills and refineries to embark on research to eliminate 3-MCPDE in palm oil.

According to palm oil researcher and geo-economist Khor Yu Leng, there are views that the strong drive for OER has subsumed concerns about product quality, and this is being looked at. The question is whether there will be more mills that make oil for high-grade food products than those that do not.

“The export processors can already supply low-3MCPD and low-GE material to key buyers at a premium. In fact, it was innovated years ago by Datuk Er Kok Leong, who ran an independent refinery,” she says.

While millers and refiners are looking at the cost-benefit of producing oil with low contaminants, the MPIC is obviously worried about overall public opinion about palm oil, Khor believes.

Chandran says the industry — planters, millers and refiners — should cooperate to look at the supply chain and identify the source precursors to the 3MCPDE and GE.

“Unless these issues are addressed with urgency, we run the risk of our CPO being the least preferred edible oil by food manufacturers and even direct consumers,” he says, adding that this is not the first time the sector has faced such threats. A paradigm shift is needed to meet the challenge head on. Contaminants are but one of the many challenges facing the industry. Apart from the possibility of palm oil being banned in biodiesel in the EU, Khor says the industry also has to look at rising challenges in China (no volume growth), India (steady ramp-up in import tariffs) and Nigeria (a call to stop imports) as these countries seek to boost their rural incomes.

Just last week, India raised import tax on crude palm oil to 44% (from 30%) — the highest level in more than a decade. It also lifted the tax on refined palm oil to 54% from 40%.

“MPOC  (Malaysian Palm Oil Council) and MPOB (Malaysian Palm Oil Board) have done a lot in many destinations markets to promote and defend palm oil. They have been successful in facilitating palm oil’s expansion globally, and have efforts on several fronts, from nutrition to energy, on tariff and non-tariff issues. MPIC and also the prime minister address palm oil issues on foreign visits. But they face a rising wave of export challenges,” Khor says.

Meanwhile, in Europe, it is understood that representatives of the EU Parliament and member states in the Council of the EU and the European Commission had their first round of talks, or Trilogue, last week on the proposal to phase out palm oil in renewable fuels. A concern among member states is the proposal’s compatibility with the World Trade Organisation. The next round of talks is slated in March and policymakers aim to reach an agreement on the draft law by the end of the first half of this year.

It has been reported that the UK, France, the Netherlands, Sweden, Italy and Spain have expressed reservations on the proposal while the proponents are mainly from the Eastern Europe.



Save by subscribing to us for your print and/or digital copy.

P/S: The Edge is also available on Apple's AppStore and Androids' Google Play.