Pizza Hut, KFC, and Taco Bell's New Relationship with Palm Oil: It's Complicated

April 2, 2015 | 11:46 am
Lael Goodman
Former contributor

Every time I visit my hometown in Grand Rapids, Michigan, I go out for pizza with my parents. You’d think I’d be jonesing for a local pizza joint, but the truth is I want Pizza Hut. I grew up on their pan crust cheese pizza and it will always have a special place in my heart (and stomach!).  So when I heard that Yum! Brands, Inc (Yum!), owner of Pizza Hut, KFC and Taco Bell and America’s second largest fast food chain had come out with a new palm oil commitment, I was pretty happy.

Yum!’s new commitment states that all palm oil used for restaurant cooking oil  will be deforestation-free and peat-free palm oil by the end of 2017. Good news, right? Yes, of course! But further examination of their new commitment yields some interesting caveats.

Taking a closer look

Yum!’s commitment has a whole lot of exceptions. Based on their commitment and a reading of some of their nutrition policy information, I created a “decision tree” diagram to help you determine if your KFC, Pizza Hut, and Taco Bell food may be linked with deforestation. (Click on the diagram to see a larger version.)



Carry on! You are not eating palm oil

You may reach the yellow box, “Carry on!” through a number of different pathways. Because Yum!’s previous palm oil position was to simply phase out its use of palm oil and and this continues to be a key strategy, you may reach the “Carry on!” box because palm oil was never used to make what you are eating. Or it could be that you are in the UK, Germany, Australia, or France where palm oil has already been replaced by other cooking oils in KFC restaurants. Or you may reach that box if it is 2018 and beyond because cooking oil for the majority of Yum!’s markets will be palm oil-free starting at the end of 2017.

While any action taken to avoid deforestation is positive, unfortunately phasing out the use of palm oil by a company or boycotting its use as a consumer does not solve the problem. Instead, companies that continue to source palm oil but also use their leverage to transform that palm oil industry, by demanding their suppliers and in turn palm oil growers produce only responsible palm oil are making the biggest difference for forests, peatlands, and our climate.

WARNING! The palm oil in your food may be linked with deforestation

But as we’ve discussed before, palm oil really is everywhere and Yum! has conceded that they will be unable to completely remove palm oil from their food. Yum!’s commitment only applies to their cooking oil starting at the end of 2017.

It is possible to reach the “WARNING!” box through two different pathways. You may reach this simply because the commitment for cooking oil goes into effect at the end of 2017. Or because Yum!’s commitment only applies to their cooking oil, this means that the palm oil used anywhere else—say in KFC’s biscuits, for example—may still be linked to tropical forest ecosystem destruction even after the end of 2017 and Yum! has no plans to change this.

But what does this mean in practice? It’s really hard to know. Yum! has been unwilling to disclose the quantity or percentage of their palm oil purchases the commitment covers, i.e. how much palm oil is used as a cooking oil and what is used in other products, like baked goods and sauces.

This is a good demonstration of the importance of transparency—one of the criteria by which we scored companies in the Palm Oil Scorecard that we released yesterday. Transparency is providing access to information about a company’s operations. With more transparency, an announcement like Yum!’s would be much clearer. UCS and consumers want to know if Yum!’s commitment means, for example, that 98% of the palm oil that Yum! uses in the future actually protects forests and peatlands, or if a much smaller percentage does. With increased transparency, UCS and consumers would know whether Yum!’s commitment is a major step that pushes the fast food industry towards responsible palm oil, or if it is simply an incremental step that won’t have big ramifications on either the climate or on preventing deforestation.

Congratulations! You are consuming deforestation-free and peat-free palm oil

Congratulations are in order if you reach the green box. This is not only because you are consuming responsible palm oil, but also because consumers played a key role in this development. Yum! came out with this new commitment just after UCS and partner Sum Of Us organized nearly 200,000 emails and petition signatures from consumers telling that company that for the sake of our atmosphere, tropical forests, and endangered species, the time to commit to responsible palm oil is now. It is great that fast food companies are starting to listen to consumer pressure.

Other good things about this commitment? Although it hasn’t released official numbers, Yum! claims that the majority of the palm oil is used as cooking oil, meaning that hopefully in the future the majority of the palm oil that Yum! uses will be deforestation-free and peat-free. And its policy covers the cooking oil used in any market, meaning that Yum! consumers around the globe will have this assurance.

We have seen over the past year that the fast food sector is severely lagging in its commitments to deforestation-free and peat-free palm oil. This commitment puts Yum! ahead of many of its peers and signals to other fast food companies that the use of palm oil potentially linked to deforestation is becoming increasingly unacceptable. Yum! is currently the largest global fast food company to make a commitment to any type of deforestation-free and peat-free palm oil. Yet, last year, other large fast food companies such as Dunkin’ Brands and Krispy Kreme announced much stronger commitments.

So I applaud Yum! Brands for taking this new step and urge them to go even further. I want there to be a new decision tree—one that looks like this: