Why is the world of olive oil, one of the world’s purest foods, so rife with rumors, backroom deals, and a complete lack of transparency? Tomorrow and the next day, the International Olive Council (IOC) is holding a summit meeting in their Madrid GHQ to discuss olive oil testing methods. For the first time, the IOC has excluded from the meeting distinguished observer chemists from non-IOC countries, including the USA, Australia and Canada. These observers also lost their access to the IOC website about this "restricted" meeting. Dr. Rod Mailer, head of the Australian Oils Research laboratory in New South Wales, Australia and a world authority on olive oil chemistry, says that his user account was blocked on the IOC site, and that he was surprised that he and others had not been invited to the meeting. "I do usually get invited and I would have expected the new chemist at the Department to also receive an invitation," Mailer said.
The IOC has given no explanation for this radical change in approach, but I’m hearing, from a range of sources, that among other things they may be about to reduce, or even eliminate, the use of the taste test in determining olive oil quality. Some say this is the first step towards abolishing the extra virgin grade of olive oil. In reality, even if the grade remains, removing the taste test from olive oil law would, de facto, mark the end of extra virginity, because sensory assessment is the most important way to determine if an olive oil is in fact top quality (extra virgin) or not. If this happens, it’s the triumph of bad oil – once again the interests of a few big olive oil traders and bottlers will have trumped those of high-quality producers, and of consumers worldwide.
This elimination of the taste test and consequent loss of extra virginity would fit with recent developments in the olive oil industry. On 14 December 2010, after testing by the regional government in Andalucia suggested that a number of “extra virgin” olive oils being sold in the region were not, in fact, extra virgin grade at all, several of the larger olive oil organizations in Spain, including ASOLIVA, ANIERAC, INFAOLIVA and the Cooperativas Agro-Alimentarias – essentially the mouthpieces of Big Oil in the Old World, and particularly Spain – wrote a letter to Rosa Agular, the national Minister of the Environment, demanding the immediate discontinuation of the taste method in determining olive oil quality, because, they claimed, the test method was “very subjective,” and had severely damaged the public image of their oils. More recently, during the California State Senate hearing on “Challenges Facing the California Olive Oil Industry” (watch the proceedings here and here), Bob Bauer, president of the North American Olive Oil Association (the trade group for olive oil importers into the US and Canada – essentially the North American arm of the IOC), suggested that the taste test was too subjective.
And now the star chamber of the IOC may be reviewing olive oil testing. Any bets that they will declare the taste test “subjective,” and put it on a fast track to extinction?
Let’s get one thing straight: a well-trained taste panel is not subjective. In fact, it is more objective, and vastly more useful in determining olive oil quality, than the chemical tests currently used on olive oil. Ironically, it was the IOC itself which invented the test, starting in the early 1990s – back when the organization still served the interests of quality olive oil producers and consumers, and hadn’t yet become what it is today: a trade organization and lobbying group for bulk oil bottlers. IOC researchers spent years studying the sensory science and robust statistical methods on which they eventually built the official taste test protocol. They laid out every detail of this protocol, leaving nothing to chance: the training and ring-testing of taste panels, each consisting of 8-12 members; the design of the tasting room with its formica booths and thermostat-regulated glass warmers; even the shape of the official tasting glass. The result is a highly reliable, mathematically robust system for revealing whether an olive oil has taste flaws or not. (Tasters can also tell you all about the positive characteristics of good oils, but this isn’t part of olive oil law.) Remember, the 17 official taste flaws which the IOC identified – “rancid,” “musty,” “fusty,” “grubby” and the rest – aren’t food snobbery, but indicators of specific chemical problems in an oil, which in turn indicate problems in its taste and health properties. In many ways, the taste panel is more sensitive than machines: after all, our olfactory apparatus can pick up certain aromas in parts per trillion. Most importantly, while the majority of chemical tests can be gamed, you can’t fool a good taste panel with bad oil.
For this reason, bad oil makers have always hated the official taste test, and see now as a good time to jettison it. Spain has just had two record olive harvests in a row, each producing more than 1.4 million tons of olive oil, much of which isn’t anywhere near extra virgin grade. Oil prices are at an 11-year low (producers in Andalucia have racked up 4 straight years of losses, totalling €2.5 billion over four years), and many hundreds of thousands of tons of olive oil are sitting in tanks around Spain – a good deal of which is subsidized by EU and Spanish governments – waiting for the price to rise. Except that olive oil isn’t wine. Inexorably, with every passing day, olive oil gets worse. It's like storing milk and hoping its value will increase.
Now that Big Oil has a bumper crop of pseudo-extra virgin oil to sell, it seems determined to get rid of the best tool for telling bad oils from good: our senses of taste and smell.
photo by Francesca Mueller
To hone your own sensory skills in olive oil, take a course at ONAOO, the oldest olive oil sensory school in the world, located in Imperia, Italy, or at the University of California, Davis. (ONAOO also offers an online course.)
(More on this topic here.)