Palma-Leaks, ‘Big Food’ multinationals have been well aware about the risk of cancer and genotoxicity for children and adolescents for over a dozen years

Palma-Leaks, ‘Big Food’ multinationals have been well aware about the risk of cancer and genotoxicity for children and adolescents for over a dozen years

Only in the last few days has the European Food Safety Authority confirmed the unacceptable risk of carcinogenicity and genotoxicity (1) for certain contaminants of which palm oil is rich. And the serious danger of this tropical fat, for children and adolescents especially as stigmatized by EFSA. But its producers and, above all, the giants who employ it in a myriad of food, have been well aware of its toxicity, for a dozen years or more. ‘Palma-leaks’.


Food multinational have always recorded severe criticism. In the past, mainly because of environmental disasters, exploitation of local communities and workers, child labor. Phenomena that have not ceased to take place (2) but partly mitigated and missed by the spotlight of the news. Media attention – even if kept at bay by the large ‘lobbies’ – now tends to concentrate on the damage caused by the irresponsible conduct of multinationals to health, like the massive use of glyphosate and the improper promotion of foods high in fat and sugar sodium which is associated with the epidemic of obesity and diabetes (3).

With regard to palm we have written extensively over the years. On its production first and foremost, which is the primary cause of ‘land grabbing’ and deforestation, ongoing in Asia, Central America and south-central Africa (4). On its widespread use in a myriad of foods, whose consumption in excessive amounts has been made inevitable for years, thus triggering inflammation, fatty liver disease and incurable diseases (5). When news reached the ‘mainstream’ the usual suspects launched a despicable campaign of disinformation to confuse the Italian consumers with the unreal fable of ‘Sustainable Palm Oil’, which is essential to the industry and even beneficial to health. Until…

Health alert

The ‘European Food Safety Authority’ has definitely clarified that the toxic substances contained in palm oil – and so, in all foods that contain it – are gravely dangerous to human health. It is not the dose that makes the poison since it is a deadly poison, carcinogenic and genotoxic albeit in small amounts (6). Children and adolescents are most at risk, because of the omnipresence of palm in foods foisted on to them, and their reduced body weight on which the toxicity has the greatest impact. 

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‘For ‘Infants’, the food groups ‘Infant and follow-on formulae’, ‘Vegetable fats and oils’ and ‘Cookies’ were the major contributors to 3- and 2-MCPD and glycidol exposure. For ‘Toddlers’, the food groups ‘Vegetable fats and oils’, ‘Cookies’ and ‘Pastries and cakes’ were the major contributors to 3- and 2-MCPD and glycidol exposure. […] In conclusion, estimated exposure substantially exceeding the group TDI for 3-MCPD is of concern; this is particularly seen in the younger age groups.’ (Efsa, 2016)

The castle of ‘pro-palm ‘ lies collapsed instantly and its proponents have had to tone down (7), asking for immediate help to the Minister of Health Beatrice Lorenzin so that – instead of measuring the levels of contamination of many famous products, and ordering the immediate withdrawal from the market of those at risk – deferring to the European Commission and to the ‘working group’ every decision on what to do.

The European Commissioner for Health and Food Safety Vytenis Andriukaitis now has the task and responsibility to urgently adopt the obligatory crisis management measures, for the postponed safeguarding of the health of European consumers. He will also have to explain why the European Commission has for years neglected the consideration of the risks that, as will be seen, were well known not only to the ’10 Big Sisters’ of the industrial production but also to the scientific community, to the national authorities in charge of food safety, and to EFSA that already in 2013 had spoken about some of the contaminants under discussion.


No need to bother Julian Assange, just a brief web search to find that ‘Big Food’ for over a dozen years had exact knowledge of the dangers associated with palm oil consumption. And yet, in the name of greater benefit – rather than worrying about replacing the contaminated fat to ensure food safety and the health of consumers, especially the little ones – increased its use. Doubling it, in just a few years.

‘seed oils (sunflower, coconut and rapeseed) contained significantly lower amounts of 3-MCPD and 2-MCPD than the refined palm oils’. (Dr. Walburga Seefelder, Nestlè 2009)

Nestle, for example, in the presentation given by its researcher Dr. Richard Stadler (8) at a conference in Prague on 21-22 April 2009 acknowledged that in 2007 the German Regulatory Authority for food security had highlighted the need to reduce levels of carcinogenic contaminants in foods and follow-on formulas for infants. And industrial research showed without any doubt how ‘Seed oils typically considerably lower in MCPD esters than palm-based fats […].’ The danger of palm had been known for years, and we knew that other fats were considerably safer. But rather than stopping the use of this poor and poisonous fat, ‘Big Food’ limited itself in trying to reduce the toxicity with additional chemical treatments. Not enough, as EFSA stated.

Still Nestle – through the statements given by Dr. Walburga Seefelder, at the conference organized by ILSI (the Brussels research center funded by multinational food industries) in February 2009 – restated that the ‘seed oils (sunflower, coconut and rapeseed) contained significantly lower amounts of 3-MCPD and 2-MCPD bound in esters (typically <0.3 mg/kg 3-MCPD bound in esters and <0.15 mg/kg 2-MCPD bound in esters) than the refined palm oils (1.5–5.0 mg/kg 3-MCPD bound in esters and 0.7–3.0 mg/ kg 2-MCPD bound in esters)’.

In the summary of the conference proceedings (9) it is stated that ‘3-MCPD esters have been found in all refined vegetable oils. The… highest levels in refined palm oil (4.5–13 mg/kg)… In the EU, maximum levels of 0.02 mg/kg for free 3-MCPD in hydrolysed vegetable proteins and soy sauce were established in 2001’.

Dr. Rüdiger Weißhaar of the CVUA Institute of Stuttgart (10), during the same event, reminded all that foreign MCPD in processed foods had been described in 2004, in a study of the University of Prague. Between 2007 and 2008 the CVUA analyzed the presence of 3-MCPD in 400 animal fats and foods containing them. Detecting only traces in the non-refined vegetable fats (such as extra-virgin olive oil) and animal fats (e.g. butter and cream), and conversely detecting rather significant levels in sweets, ‘infant formula’, crackers and chocolate bars, due in fact to refined palm fat.

‘A significant exposure to 3-MCPD-esters for consumers exists! Refined palm oil in different kinds of foodstuffs is responsible for a significant part of exposure.[…] Negative aspects – Toxicology – Glycidol itselfs is “probably carcinogenic to humans”‘ (Dr. Rüdiger Weißhaar, CVUA Stuttgart, 2009)

The French Institute for fats and oils, in turn, had reported in 2009 at a ‘workshop’ organized by ‘Euro Fed Lipid’ (11) that ‘Free 3-MCPD is (…) thresholded carcinogenic and has a testicular and renal toxicity in rats’.

Palm was then in the middle of a research project funded by the German food industry (EIF ‘Research Association of the German Food Industry’) and the Ministry for Economics and Technology, launched in 2007 with the aim of reducing the above mentioned genotoxic and carcinogenic contaminants from food (12).


The ‘Volkswagen’ case, compared, is a puerile nonsense. For at least fifteen years ‘Big Food’ deliberately produced and put on the global market toxic foods, just to save on production costs and to increase profit margins. With the inevitable complacency, it goes without saying, of national and European institutions dedicated to the food safety risk management. The ‘ palm -risk’ is an absolute gravity since it is not about a ‘possible stomach ache’ (like with a minor contamination of salmonella), but of incurable diseases that can be passed on to future generations. Cancer and DNA damage. But we must not generalize, it is not just the institutions or ‘the system of industries’ to be blamed.

The public system of official controls governing food safety has taken giant steps, starting from February 12, 2000 when the then President of the European Commission Romano Prodi adopted the ‘White Paper on Food Safety’, which was followed by the so called ‘General Food Law’ (Reg. EC 178/02) and the ‘Hygiene Package’ (reg. CE 852/04 and following). If something did not work, in identifying and managing an emerging risk such as the one now under examination, the perpetrators of the relevant omissions will have to be identified, perhaps too sensitive to the most unscrupulous ‘lobbies’. The system will still need to be reconsidered (13), so that such incidents do not occur again, and above all we must immediately address the ‘Palm crisis’, in a manner consistent with the scientific risk assessment carried out by EFSA.

Food manufacturers are complex organizations that employ a lot of manpower, they participate in the economy of the various territories (14) and however – with rare exceptions, like the one under examination – they produce safe and accessible food to wide layers of the population thanks to a reasonable value for money. Certainly not all, and indeed very few knew the toxicity of palm, outside the small circle of giants participating in the international organizations and conferences where the risks had been taken into account. When we think of ‘Big Food’, we must not look at brands and organizations. It is rather to identify the responsibility of the individuals – of those who occupied and still occupy top positions – in the big industries and reference organizations, who well knew about the danger and decided to turn a blind eye, to contribute to a lucrative collective poisoning in the name of almighty buck. But that’s something the judiciary will have to deal with.

The consumer/Actors can instead express their outrage without undermining the economy of these organizations and their jobs, choosing to buy only foods free of palm oil. This would speed the breakthrough necessary, the ‘phasing out’ of those products that must disappear as soon as possible from the shelves, for the aforementioned reasons. At the same time they will protect their own health and that of their loved ones, and they will force the public and private decision makers to reset their strategies, in a very ethical direction as well as respectful of the values that in this case were obviously neglected. CSV (‘Contributing to Social Values’ 15), is the paradigm that we all, ‘from the farm to the fork’, should share. For a better world, which is always possible, starting from the small gestures of each one of us.

Dario Dongo




(2) Some examples of current affairs, beyond the palm:

– the labour of minors in the cacao sector

– slavery in fishing










(12) Project presented in Brussels, at the ” ILSI workshop ‘on MCPD and Glycidyl esters in Food Products’,

(13) The attention to the so called REFIT, ‘Regulatory Fitness and Performance Programme’, should be focused on improving food security, rather than divert off topic (eg.

(14) It is worth mentioning that the power supply is the first manufacturing sector in Europe, in terms of sales volumes, with a positive trade balance of € 7.2 billion in the fourth 2015 quarter,