* New EU labelling rules to come into force in December 2014
* Sustainability certificates to reassure consumers
By Ivana Sekularac
AMSTERDAM, March 5 Palm oil consumption in Europe would be curbed when new rules start next year compelling food makers to label their products with the ingredient if used, the Dutch product board warned.
Because it is solid at room temperature, palm oil has become an irreplaceable ingredient in a variety of products from chocolate bars and spreads to biscuits, ice cream and even soap.
But a wave of negative campaigning has targeted its cultivation, especially in Indonesia and Malaysia - a natural habitat for the orangutan - where activists say rain forests have been destroyed to make room for palm oil plantations.
Frans Claassen, head of the Dutch Board for Margarine, Fats and Oils, which represents the industry, said the negative campaigns could force food producers to seek to replace palm oil, which would cut its imports and make products more expensive.
"If palm oil keeps its bad reputation some food producers could stop using palm oil," Claassen told Reuters.
Since 1995 global palm oil production has tripled as food producers have used it to replace less healthy trans fats created by hydrogenation of liquid oils such as rape oil, soy oil and sunflower oil.
Palm oil imports to the European Union account for 10 percent of global production, and nearly half is imported through the Netherlands.
As of December 2014, food producers will be obliged to put on labels if they use rape oil, palm oil, soyoil or any other oil that are currently all labelled as vegetable oil, and experts say it will be difficult to find a replacement for it.
Mike Gordon, professor of food chemistry at the Department of Food and Nutritional Science at the University of Reading in Britain said milk butter fat could be the only alternative.
"It (milk butter fat) would probably be a bit more expensive," he said.
Campaigners and food producers agree sustainability certificates could be a way to reassure consumers a rainforest has not been destroyed to make room for the palm oil used in a specific product.
Unilever, one of the world's biggest palm oil buyers, said 100 percent of its palm oil was sustainable as of 2012.
"By 2020, we are aiming for all of our sustainability sourced palm oil to be traceable back to the plantation on which it was grown," it said in a written statement to Reuters.
It said the industry needs to step up demand for sustainable palm oil which now accounts for 15 percent of the global output, to reassure both consumers and campaigners.
In Malaysia, a government official who declined to be named said his country will draft a new labelling strategy to reassure consumers in the EU, a major importing region.
"The strategy is to differentiate ourselves from Indonesian palm oil where most of the forest clearing is happening. In Malaysia, on the other hand, we are running out of land," the official said.
Hans van Trijp, professor of marketing and consumer behaviour at Wageningen University in the Netherlands, said labelling would not on its own bring any changes in consumer behaviour, but aggressive campaigns could make them more observant of labels and prone to boycotting certain ingredients.
"The information itself will not motivate consumers to change. The issue needs to be put on the agenda," he said.