Our demand for “healthier” junk food is creating some nasty new problems for the world

Banning trans fats will keep Americans healthier, at the expense of migrant workers in Southeast Asia.
Banning trans fats will keep Americans healthier, at the expense of migrant workers in Southeast Asia.
Image: AP Photo/Kathy Willens
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In 2013, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) preliminarily determined that partially hydrogenated oils (PHOs) were no longer “generally recognized as safe” for use in human food. PHOs contain artificial trans fats, which have been linked to a number of common, chronic health problems, including coronary heart disease—the leading cause of death for Americans, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

This year, the FDA finalized the determination, and has set a compliance period of three years that will allow companies to either “reformulate products without PHOs and/or petition the FDA to permit specific uses of PHOs,” according to a press release. “Following the compliance period, no PHOs can be added to human food unless they are otherwise approved by the FDA.”

Many companies have responded to the FDA’s decision by replacing vegetable-based PHOs with palm oil—a low-cost substance derived from the fruit of oil palms, specifically Elaeis guineensis, which is native to sub-Saharan Africa but is now cultivated in tropical regions around the world, most notably Malaysia and Indonesia.

According to the Union for Concerned Scientists, palm oil imports to the United States have grown drastically since US companies began phasing out artificial trans fats. In 2012, the US imported seven times as much palm oil as it did in 1999, when the FDA began requiring food manufacturers to include trans-fat content on labeling.

This, of course, has been a welcome development for palm oil producers abroad—Indonesian farmers, in particular. Indonesia is the world’s largest exporter of palm oil; but increased global demand has led to a sharp uptick in industrial side effects, like deforestation and air pollution. (The former has been hugely detrimental to the habitat of the critically endangered orangutan.)

Furthermore, the cultivation of palm oil is an industry rife with human-rights abuses. According to a 2013 report by Bloomberg, one of the world’s biggest palm oil suppliers—Malaysian company Kuala Lumpur Kepong—has allegedly defrauded, abused, and held captive low-wage workers by way of a labor management firm called CV Sinar Kalimantan.

Bloomberg reported on the experience of “Adam,” a 19-year-old from North Sumatra who was lured, with his cousin, roughly 2,000 miles away from their home to work for KLP. They were promised $6 a day to drive trucks. Halfway through the journey to the worksite, Adam and 18 of his fellow recruits (some as young as 14) were diverted to the labor manager’s house where they were forced to sign contracts that “spelled out different terms.”

The new contracts bound workers to a boss in Malaysia, who could modify the nature of their work without notice or negotiation. Wages were docked a dollar, and total compensation would be withheld for two years. In the meantime, the company would “loan” workers $16 a month (roughly $0.53 a day) for basic necessities. Workers were also apparently forbidden from leaving the worksite until the end of the contract period.

This account is backed up by The Wall Street Journal, which conducted its own investigation in July and reports that Malaysia has become a veritable hotbed for human-rights abuses linked to palm oil production. In fact, the US state department recently upgraded Malaysia’s human-rights rating, despite numerous reports of this kind. Palm oil plantations are taking advantage of large-scale, undocumented migration from Bangladesh and Myanmar (mainly persecuted, Muslim Rohingya) across the Bay of Bengal into Southeast Asia. As undocumented migrants, these individuals generally lack protections and/or recourse when they come up against abuse.

“There is huge demand for labor in sectors such as plantations and construction,” Alfred Vengadasalam, a Malaysian lawyer who specializes in labor issues, told the Journal. “These are also the sectors where abuses are most common.”

“They buy and sell us like cattle,” a 25-year-old Bangladeshi worker told the Journal, claiming to have been “shunted among three contractors for six months without receiving any pay.”

An organization called the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) has attempted to cut down on abuses by certifying palm oil “based on environmental and social standards.” So far only a fractional portion of palm oil produced in Southeast Asia has been approved by the RSPO, however. While growing, this portion remains outstripped by overall demand.

As more US companies phase out artificial trans fats, and demand for palm oil inevitably grows, US consumers can avoid exacerbating human-rights abuses associated with the industry by purchasing from RSPO-approved companies, like Nestlé and P&G, both of which have committed to buying palm oil only from RSPO-certified plantations.

The dilemma also provides an opportunity for consumers to reevaluate and more fully comprehend how purchasing choices—even when seemingly done for purposes of good health—can have negative impacts on the wider world. Banning artificial trans fats may be good for American hearts and bodies, but it’s not great for the laborers kidnapped and starved into cultivating its replacement or the forests being stripped and burned in the process.