Vanishing Virginity?


Official tasting glass for olive oil sensory analysis, International Olive Council

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.)

Comments

Gives this producer pause when I think of who will certify tasting panels that are required for California State law governing what is extra virgin olive oil. Perhaps it's time for North and South America along with Australia to step up and lead the change.

Hi Nick - the handwriting has been on the wall re/ the IOC for a long time now. The answer, according to many qualified sources, is the American Oil Chemists' Society, the world's most prestigious oils and fats organization; several leading AOCS chemists have begun to take a serious interest in olive oil. They will do a far better job of managing & ring testing panels. The Canadian government has already said "No thanks" to the IOC, and turned to the AOCS. There's an important AOCS short course on olive oil in Long Beach CA at the end of April, which should further this process. I'm going.

Education is the key to quality oil producers future. Thank you for your role in this.

This is disappointing to read. Just when it seems that progress was to be made it's like a step backwards (or two).

It is about time that the buying public were made aware that it is impossible to produce cheap genuine extra virgin olive oil and that some of the so called extra virgin olive oils on supermarket shelves should be withdrawn

I produce a single variety, single estate extra virgin olive oil from organically certified trees. The factory that presses our oil takes a percentage of the oil rather than a monetary fee and I know that that portion of my amazing oil is exported to Italy where it is used to adulterate olive oil that is not naturally extra virgin in order to reduce the acidity level to that qualifying as extra virgin. It is no longer possible to make a living from producing superior olive oil here in Crete and that is an indictment of the industry and a swindle of the consumers.

"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?"

Money. The sad truth is that there is a lot of money made selling oil labeled extra virgin, and those making it will do whatever it takes to keep it coming.

Let's hope the efforts to create a standard here in the US retains the tasting panel.

The American fat and lipid chemists in AOCS gave us canola and other pro inflammatory seed oils.Why are they required to set standards. They have multiple conflicts of interests.
Panels are expensive to maintain, have multiple conflicts of interest and decide on the IOC "faults" that can be tested more subjectively in a laboratory and really only decide on a subjective and biased definition of "fruitiness" and "balance". "Fruitiness"+ "balance" determined by American food chemists is a political determination rather than a health consideration,given the influence the lobbyists from the Big Ag companies in US politics.
The olive fruit fly or The Mediterranean fruit fly, plus water supply and sustainability are big issues for olive growers everywhere.The small New World organic olive producers will go to the wall if standards are set by New World sensory panelists who have an involvement with the Australian super groves or High Density Californian groves.
The new global standard for extra virginity should include mass spectometry testing for faults and a polyphenol +-atochopherol test.This will indicate the shelf life of the oil. it's "fruitiness" and its health by giving consumers a rating scale as in Manuka honey. This will also indicate the shelf life of the oil from date of testing in a Government certified laboratory. A pesticide residue test is also imperative from a public health perspective.

Dear Tom and responders/ bloggers

this is indeed fascinating and exciting that good and true and authentic olive oil receive such attention.
There are so many things to learn and understand in any food product, and olive oil makes no exception. We have a conference in Israel at the beginning of the summer, unveiling the health promotion qualities of EVOO, and this will be an excellent chance to meet in person with Tom and other professionals from around the globe, and experience excellent olive oils on the land where olive oil was first produced (http://www.terraolivo.org/con_index.htm).

Being a food chemist, focusing on olive oils and serving as a delegate in the IOC chemists' committee, I would like to draw the attention of us all, that not all published things are true, and not all are free from interests and agendas.

We all cherish the true virtues of foods, olive oil especially. We are all exposed one way or the other to the potential adulterations and frauds. It is in our hands to push traders and chains to sell only true EVOO's. This is also the goal of the IOC even if not all see, and this should also be the goal of all other producers (countries and private sectors). This should be our meeting point, and June in Israel maybe the time and place to move things forward.

See you here,

http://www.terraolivo.org/con_index.htm

Zohar Kerem, Ph.D.
Food Chemistry
Institute of Biochemistry, Food Science and Nutrition
Robert H. Smith Faculty of Agriculture, Food and Environment
The Hebrew University of Jerusalem
P.O.B. 12, Rehovot 76100
ISRAEL
Tel: 972-8-9489278;
972-8-9489970
Fax: 972-8-9476189
E-mail: kerem@agri.huji.ac.il

Perhaps Mr Karem Phd, could

Perhaps Mr Karem Phd, could be a little more specific in his 'hint' about not all published things being true.
Is he referring to Toms book? If so, say so.
 

((

((
Let's hope the efforts to create a standard here in the US retains the tasting panel.))
In truth, we need the tasting panel and the science tests to determine the level of
health elements  polyphenols, etc.. otherwise there really is no difference in bad oil and good
oil. Without the health benefits, who the hell cares about olive oil? Except  the money
men.

((This is also the goal of

((This is also the goal of the IOC even if not all see,))
Mr Kerem, I would suggest that the IOC, in wanting to ban the taste test has zero credibility at this point in time.
There can be NO reason for banning the taste test, except money. End of story.

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