On December 5th, I testified at the first-ever national hearing on olive oil quality, in Washington DC. Chaired by the United States International Trade Commission (USITC), an independent, bipartisan federal agency, this event brought together olive oil industry experts from across America and around the world. The commissioners were engaged and very well prepared, asking intelligent questions for an entire long day of testimony. This hearing demonstrated the US government’s firm new resolve to come to grips with olive oil quality.
So, the USITC hearing was serious stuff . . . but also loads of fun, with plenty of familiar faces. I caught up with several top oil producers from California whom I’d first seen years back while researching Extra Virginity, and with Texas oil women and men I’d had great talks (and killer margaritas) with during the Texas Olive Oil Council conference in San Antonio last August. I finally got to meet Jason Shaw, key member of the Georgia Olive Growers Association, whose work (and excellent oil) I’d been following for some time; Michael O’Hara Garcia from the Florida Olive Council; and Marshall McKay, tribal chairman of the sovereign Yoche Dehe Wintun Nation, which produced their first olive oil this year from groves on their tribal lands in California’s Capay Valley. Other familiar faces included oil chemist friends who’d come from the UC Davis and clear from Australia, nursery owners, California Olive Oil Council execs, and 3 leaders – Eryn Balch, Bob Bauer and John Sessler – of the North American Olive Oil Association (NAOOA), the trade group of major importers. I also said hello to Frank Patton from Pompeian, the major supermarket brand. (A full list of witnesses with the text of their testimony is here, an overview of the hearing’s aims are here, and cogent news analysis here.)
The witnesses were basically divided into two camps – domestic producers and foreign importers – who have radically different views of the state of olive oil in America. The domestic producers, united in an umbrella organization called the American Olive Oil Producers Association, maintain that many olive oils sold in America simply don’t live up to their “extra virgin” labels. Pointing to recent surveys such as those performed by the UC Davis (here, here and here) and Consumer Reports (here), which have identified widespread mislabeling in US olive oil, they assert that America needs tighter quality standards and tougher enforcement in olive oil to distinguish real from fake “extra virgins,” thereby ensuring that consumers get their money’s worth, and that honest producers aren’t undercut by cheap imitations.
The NAOOA, which represents large oil importing companies that sell extra virgin olive oil, "light" olive oil (a blend of extra virgin and refined olive oils), and other olive oil product categories, disagrees. They say that the recent alarm over olive oil quality is overblown, even in bad faith, and that a solid standard already exists: the current USDA trade standard, which is based on the world’s most widely-used quality regulation, formulated by the International Olive Council (IOC). The NAOOA is petitioning the FDA to make this the agency’s standard of identity. They imply that domestic growers are actually more interested in raising trade barriers to aid their own business than in defending US consumers.
Overall my thinking is much more aligned with the domestic producers’ position, but the NAOOA made some important points. First of all, as I said in my sworn testimony during the hearing, it’s essential that this potentially invaluable USITC process not become an exercise in protectionism. Olive oil quality has nothing to do with nationalism: some of the best olive oil in the world is produced around the Mediterranean, and some of the worst olive oils I’ve ever encountered are bottled – or in some cases concocted – in the USA (I detail cases of this in Extra Virginity, p. 195ff). Second, over the last 15 years or so, since the FDA stopped its olive oil testing program, the NAOOA is the only association in America that has done any systematic olive oil testing, so if US olive oil is as good as it currently is, it’s largely thanks to the NAOOA. (For a breaking-news example of NAOOA's vigilance and testing, see the lawsuit they've just brought against Kangadis Food, more commonly known as The Gourmet Factory, a New York company and producer of Capatriti brand olive oil – a product that the NAOOA alleges is actually pomace oil, an industrial byproduct made from the solid waste of olive mills using industrial solvents and high heat.) On a personal level, too, I’m grateful to the NAOOA, because at several times they’ve provided me with important information that has furthered my journalistic work.
That said, I feel there’s solid evidence that olive oil quality in America needs an upgrade, and that much “extra virgin” oil fails to meet USDA and other international definitions of the extra virgin grade. The UC Davis and Consumer Reports studies are only part of the picture. Other studies have produced similar results: extensive testing by the Australian Olive Association and the South African Olive Industry Association, surveys by the regional government of Andalucía in Spain, the University of Bologna, Italy, German and Swiss television programs, and elsewhere, have pointed to similar problems with olive oil quality.
What’s more, 98% of olive oil consumed in America is imported, the vast majority from the EU, and right now people in the main producer nations of the EU are expressing serious concern about the quality of their olive oil. A November 2012 survey by the Organización de consumidores y usuarios, the leading Spanish consumer protection group, stated that 9 of 34 “extra virgin” olive oils tested were actually of a lower grade, and were “clearly misleading to consumers”; the publication of the survey caused a violent media reaction, and subsequent consultation at regional and national levels of the Spanish government to address the issue. Last summer, the Italian government gave additional judicial weight to the panel test, and just a month ago passed a new law on olive oil quality, widely nicknamed “The Save Italian Olive Oil Law,” which features tighter quality standards, more extensive testing, and significantly increased penalties for oil fraud. (A summary of this law, called the “Legge Mongiello,” is here (in Italian). The EU Agricultural Commission itself is clearly aware of serious questions about the quality of EU oil, and recently published what it calls “an ‘action plan’ for the olive oil sector,” which aims to fight fraud and improve oil produced in the EU. This “action plan” (text here) mandates steps to reinforce chemical and sensory testing against various frauds, improve labeling, strengthen penalties for fraud, and protect consumers. Clearly, the EU Agriculture Commission, author of this plan, is concerned about the quality of its olive oil.
Something doesn’t add up here. The EU and member nations believe there are serious questions about the quality of EU olive oil, and most of the olive oil sold in the USA is made in the EU. Yet the NAOOA maintains that there are no quality problems in the USA, a country where (unlike Europe) no government testing is being done. Are the quality problems disappearing somewhere over the Atlantic? What am I missing?
Another question concerns the NAOOA’s position on the taste test for olive oil, which they claim is too subjective to be reliable, on its own, in determining the grade of an olive oil. Eryn Balch, NAOOA Executive Vice President, stated the association’s position during the hearing: “With somewhere over 500 different varieties of olives that are grown all over the world, there’s such a huge range of different flavors that a professional taster would have to be accustomed [to]…. While everything has been done in the sensory method to try to minimize that bias, we see it all over the world.”
Actually, sensory analysis as defined in the IOC, the USDA, and other standards, isn’t about recognizing different olive varieties at all. Instead, the taste panel is simply detects the presence and intensity of 1 positive attribute (fruitiness) and of 16 specific sensory flaws (“rancid,” “musty,” etc – see here for further details on the official flaws.) To rank as extra virgin, an olive oil must have some appreciable fruitiness, and no flaws. Following a methodology developed over decades of R&D by the IOC and other organizations, the 9 members of the taste panel (8 tasters and a panel leader) train extensively to recognize the 16 flaws. The evaluations of the panel members are combined using robust statistical methods, to create a composite score for each oil sample that eliminates inconsistent judgments. This is a scientific and reliable system, which the IOC itself continues to defend strenuously. IOC Executive Director Jean-Louis Barjol wrote recently: “At the IOC we think very highly of our sensory testing method … and we consider it to be an essential quality criterion.”
Which raises a question. In their testimony before the USITC, and elsewhere, the NAOOA have praised the scientific credentials and authority of the IOC. In fact, the NAOOA is a voluntary signatory to the IOC’s quality monitoring agreement, and has taken part in this program since 1990. Sensory analysis is an integral part of the IOC quality standard for olive oil, according to which if an oil has one sensory flaw it's not extra virgin, even if it meets all chemical requirements for that category. Yet the NAOOA, while endorsing the IOC quality standard, questions the validity of this central pillar of the IOC definition of olive oil quality. On what authority? For what purpose? This reminds me of the big Spanish bottling companies who seem to petition the Spanish agriculture minister to halt taste testing every time someone tastes their oils and finds they have sensory flaws. The fact is that sensory analysis is the best indicator of olive oil quality. While it’s relatively easy to meet – or to fiddle – the chemical requirements for the extra virgin grade, if an oil passes the sensory exam, it virtually has to be good. Good tasting, good for you.
Despite these differences of opinion, however, I felt the USITC hearing was an extremely positive event, for several reasons. Firstly, I believe that US domestic producers and the NAOOA are a lot closer in thinking than they might seem. John Sessler, Chairman of the NAOOA and head of JCS Tradecom Inc, importer of ZOE brand olive oils, testified that he and his company “embrace the fact that the US consumer is becoming more discriminating, and considering factors such as taste, type of olive, source of oil,” and that they “sell a premium product, which, due to its quality, small lots, and artisan nature, competes on factors other than price.” As he spoke, I was nodding like a spring-necked dog. I haven’t tasted ZOE oil yet, but I’m betting it’s very good. The reality is that the folks who make up the NAOOA are astute business people, who understand marketing and profit margins far better than I. They know that, if olive oil follows the upward trend in quality, differentiation and consumer awareness that fine wines, coffees, microbrew beers, artisanal cheeses and other premium food products have followed in recent years, this will be great news both for people who eat and sell olive oil. Every olive oil company, even the most high-volume, will make more money if extra virgin is clearly distinguished from lower grades, and celebrated as a high-end product. Think of grand cru Bordeaux and Beaujolais nouveau, which support each other as members of the same winning team that is French wine. Not the zero-sum game of identically-labeled real and fake extra virgins locked in a price war, and driving a commodity-style race to the bottom in terms of quality.
Above all, the USITC hearing appeared a breakthrough for olive oil, in America and beyond, because of the seriousness with which the Commission worked – and continues to work. After a full day of excellent discussion, they and their staff followed up with extensive post-hearing questioning. Right now, a team of analysts sent by the Commission is traveling throughout the Mediterranean, meeting with olive oil producers, chemists, importers, policy-makers and others, and making up their own minds about the quality of olive oil that arrives in the USA. Their comprehensive report, which is due in August, could well bring a whole new level of clarity to the question of how to ensure that US consumers are getting the real McCoy. Such clarity would also be a big boost to producers of quality oil around the Mediterranean, who, every bit as much as oil-makers in California, Texas or Georgia, struggle to distinguish their superior products from cut-priced, low-grade look-alikes.