“The palm oil used by Ferrero is safe because it comes from freshly squeezed fruits and is processed at controlled temperatures,” Tapella says in the TV ad, which was filmed at the firm’s factory in the northern town of Alba and was accompanied by full-page ads in newspapers carrying the same message.
EFSA declined to comment on the possible risks of refining palm oil at lower temperatures.
Ferrero is by no means the only big European food firm to keep using palm oil in its products since the EFSA report. The likes of Unilever and Nestle use it in products including chocolate, snacks, and margarine. The two companies said they were monitoring the contaminant issue and were working with their suppliers to keep GE at lowest possible levels.
Ferrero is the only big European food company to mount such a public defense of the use of the ingredient in its products following the EFSA opinion. The company told Reuters it carried out “hundreds of thousands of tests” on contaminants in both the palm oil it uses and finished products.
Retail sales of Nutella in Italy fell by about 3 percent in the 12 months to the end of August, which Ferrero partly blamed on rivals promoting products as palm oil-free. To address consumer concern the company launched its advertising campaign in September and says it is now showing results.
Nutella sales in Italy rose 4 percent in the last four months of 2016, said Alessandro D’Este, the head of Ferrero’s Italy business.
Global Nutella sales have been unaffected by the EFSA opinion and are growing at 5-6 percent annually, the company said. Family owned Ferrero, which is not publicly listed, did not disclose its sales for Europe outside its home market.
The group ended its fiscal year to August with total revenue of 10 billion euros ($10.5 billion), of which around 2 billion euros came from Nutella sales.
EFSA’s 284-page study comes on top of environmental concerns that have dogged the palm oil industry for several years. Green groups have accused the industry of causing deforestation.
Several firms using the ingredient, including Ferrero, say they buy palm oil certified by the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil, which works with producers to reduce the negative impacts of cultivation on the environment.
Tapella told Reuters that Nutella had contained palm oil since its creation in the 1960s and that the group relied only on palm plantations certified as sustainable.
Ferrero’s advertising campaign has drawn some political fire. The anti-establishment 5-Star Movement, which is running neck-and-neck with the ruling Democratic Party in opinion polls, has asked the Italian advertising authority to block Ferrero’s campaign and fine it for misleading consumers on both health and environmental risks.
A spokeswoman for the advertising authority said it had yet to decide whether to reject the 5-Star complaint or take measures against Ferrero, adding that the process could take several more weeks.
The palm oil industry, dominated by producers in Malaysia and Indonesia, believes Ferrero is playing an important role in addressing what it regards as misconceptions among consumers.
“It is good that Ferrero has clarified that the palm oil they use is safe and sustainable,” said Yusof Basiron, chief executive of the Malaysian Palm Oil Council. He said Malaysian producers had not suffered any impact on their European exports after the EFSA opinion. The Indonesian Palm Oil Association also said there had been no impact.
NOTE: ($1 = 0.9565 euros)