A new investigation by the Rainforest Action Network (RAN) has alleged some of the world's largest snack food companies are using illegal palm oil. The list includes Unilever, PepsiCo, Nestlé, Mondelēz, General Mills, Kellogg’s, Mars and Hershey’s.
The allegation emerged from an investigation by the environmental group into mills illegally growing palm oil in protected reserves in Sumatra, in Indonesia.
The rainforest in question is recognised as one of the most important animal sanctuaries in the world and home to the densest population of orang-utans on earth.
While some, like Nestle, denied the allegation, others' response suggests the complexity of the supply chain makes it difficult to know for sure where the palm oil comes from.
The makers of some of the world's most recognisable snacks are responsible for wide-scale deforestation in direct contravention of their company policies, according to an investigation by the Rainforest Action Network (RAN).
The environmental group released a report on Monday that claims Unilever, PepsiCo, Nestlé, Mondelēz, General Mills, Kellogg’s, Mars and Hershey’s are all buying illegally sourced palm oil to make their products.
“The evidence resulting from our investigations is unequivocal," RAN forest policy director Gemma Tillack said in a release issued to Business Insider Australia.
"Despite the fact that these big name brands publicly promised to end deforestation for snack foods years ago, they are still sourcing from the companies driving palm oil plantation expansion into the heart of one of the highest priority conservation landscapes... on the planet: the lowland peat forests of the Leuser Ecosystem.”
Some of the brands reject the allegation outright – their responses have been included below – but RAN is adamant the conclusions of its investigation are undeniable.
RAN alleges that mills situated on the edges of the protected zone continue to illegally grow palm oil inside the reserve. It claims that illegal oil is then sold on to refineries and traders, and intermediaries like Singapore's GAR and Indonesia's Musim Mas. The food companies named then buy the oil, RAN claims, despite not being able to trace its source.
It included satellite analysis, GPS tracking, as well as field-based investigations involving photography and interviews to help substantiate its findings.
"[They] lack the necessary procedures to trace the location where the palm oil they sell is grown, a key requirement for complying with the No Deforestation, No Peatlands, No Exploitation (NDPE) policies all of these brands have publicly committed to," RAN said.
Those commitments were made years ago in recognition of the destruction associated with the production of palm oil, including deforestation and fire, in countries like Indonesia.
It's a damning allegation. Situated on Sumatra in Indonesia's west, the Leuser is one of the most important animal sanctuaries on earth. It's also known as the 'orangutan capital of the world' thanks to being home to the highest density of the critically endangered animals on the planet.
"The roughly 2.6 million hectare Leuser Ecosystem in Sumatra is renowned around the world by scientists, conservationists and wildlife lovers as the only place left where critically endangered orangutans, tigers, elephants and rhinos still exist in the same forest," RAN said in its report.
The accused brands deny any wrongdoing
The companies at the heart of the allegations have largely denied the allegations.
Nestle, which owns dozens of brands including Milo, KitKat, Nescafe and Maggi, said it had spoken with its supplier GAR, and it has denied that its palm oil is illegally acquired.
"GAR confirmed that these two mills – PT Global Sawit Semesta and PT Samudera Sawit Nabati — do not source palm oil from plantations engaged in deforestation activities in the Rawa Singkil Wildlife Reserve," Nestle said in a statement provided to Business Insider Australia.
Mars said that while GAR is not a direct supplier to the company, it admitted it can be difficult to be across the entire supply chain and was hoping to be certain on its hand in deforestation by next year.
"We’re working to deliver 100% deforestation-free palm oil by the end of 2020 and advance respect for human rights across our suppliers’ extended supply chains," a spokesperson said for the company that produces Dolmio, Masterfoods, Snickers and Twix amongst others.
"This includes a focus on simplification and verification – to significantly simplify Mars’ palm supply chain with the goal of moving from over 1,500 mills to less than 100 by the end of 2020 — and further reductions in the number of mills by the end of 2022."
Hershey's also stated that while it was not supplied directly by these mills, it could not be sure that the illegal palm oil wasn't used in its products.
"While oil from these mills was not sold directly to Hershey, we have no way of knowing if palm oil from these mills actually made its way into the oil that was sold to Hershey by our direct suppliers. This list of mills in our traceability work goes beyond Hershey’s physical supply chain," a spokesperson said.
Mondelez, which owns snack brands including Cadbury and Oreo, mirrored the sentiment and called on governments, suppliers and farmers to do more.
Unilever, which makes Ben and Jerry's and Streets ice-cream among others, said it was still undergoing its own review at the time of publication.
"Any suggestion of deforestation in our immediate or extended supply chain is taken extremely seriously. In line with our sustainable sourcing policy, we have commenced our grievance process so any appropriate action can be taken," a Unilever spokesperson said.
Kellogg's and General Mills had not responded to Business Insider Australia's request for comment at the time of publication.
RAN is now demanding that the companies it has named face up to the consequences of illegal palm oil and cease any connection to it whatsoever. The answers provided to Business Insider Australia's questions are unlikely to sate that call.
"Global brands and banks implicated must immediately take action to halt business-as-usual practices with their suppliers and clients and not resume sourcing or financing until transparent and verifiable monitoring, traceability and compliance systems are in place," its report concluded.
That puts those brands in a stand-off with both environmental groups and consumers concerned at the potential damage they're doing.