The Conversation

Views on Food: California sets off international skirmish on olive oil standards

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Food historians like to say that if you follow the food, you will discover the history of the world. Indeed, wars have been fought over salt, herring and spices.

Now California has incited an international skirmish over how the state’s olive oil industry would prefer to measure the quality of its product. The new Olive Oil Commission of California, representing most of the state’s olive oil production, has proposed standards for quality and purity that exceed those of Europe and the USDA.

And that’s not all. The commission wants a completely new California labeling vocabulary. The intent is to banish the obfuscating terms “Pure,” “Light” and “Extra Light,” terms still in use and still confounding consumers. Each is a code word signaling the presence of refined olive oil, which is chemically stripped of flavor, odor, color and the oil’s healthful antioxidants and polyphenols, leaving only the monounsaturated fats intact.

If the state approves, shoppers buying California olive oil will have the simple choices of “Extra-Virgin” – the highest grade – and “Virgin,” similar to the choices between Grade A and Grade B eggs.

We will know by Oct. 1, maybe sooner, if California’s olive oil will get a set of standards appropriate for the kind of olive oil that nature gave us in our climate, from our soil. It will be for and by Californians and not influenced by the existing standards from Europe.

It’s no accident this sounds like the colonies severing ties with England. At just a fraction of the world’s olive oil production, California is the little guy.

With the same energy as those battling to make California synonymous with extra-virgin olive oil, the International Olive Council in Madrid and its trade partner, the New Jersey-based North American Olive Oil Association, as well as EU countries, are protecting their turf as arbiters of olive oil quality.

Together, the opponents of California’s plan represent producers and traders so big they control 90 percent of the world’s olive oil. You’d recognize some of their brands – Bertolli, Berio, Pompeiian, Star, Crisco.

The reach of the International Olive Council can be seen in the existing standards for American olive oil. They are nearly a copy of the IOC’s.

When a state, let alone another country, attempts to come up with olive oil standards of its own, European exporters, traders and packers take notice. There was already bad blood. The 2011 UC Davis Olive Center study impugned high-volume imports of olive oil labeled Extra-Virgin for failing quality and purity tests required for that high grade. Eryn Balch, executive vice president of the North American Olive Oil Association, continues to blast the report as a media tool.

So, at a July 15 hearing before the California Department of Food and Agriculture on whether the state should adopt new olive oil standards, the opposition came to Sacramento to derail it.

“It was a grueling day,” recalls Paul Miller of Melbourne, Australia, who is president of the Australian Olive Association. At nine hours, it was the longest hearing in recent memory.

Having the firepower of the Europeans in the room was nothing new to Miller. He rattled the status quo in 2011 by setting up new Australian standards for olive oil. The same factions flew Down Under to try to block them. Australia prevailed, turning an entire continent to standards stricter than those of the International Olive Council.

“What on earth would they think if we marched over there, if they were trying to implement standards for their own products?” asked Kimberly Houlding of the American Olive Oil Producers Association. “It’s just really interesting to think about that they can impose their thinking upon our standards.”

“Why are they testifying against it when it doesn’t even affect them?” asked Jeff Colombini, a member of California’s olive oil commission who grows olives near Lodi. The new standards would apply only to California olive oil and only to producers who make 5,000 gallons a year or more, about a dozen millers and 100 growers.

Luisito Cercaci, an Italian chemist, testified on behalf of Pompeii Olive Oil, expressing that he “would like to have harmonization of the (International Olive Council) standard worldwide.”

But Selina Wang of UC Davis presented testimony that touches on one of the real reasons California olive oil producers want their own standards. The chemical makeup of olive oil includes fatty acids and sterols. Too much could be an indication of poor quality or fruit handling. But California olive oil is naturally higher in these components because of our sunshine and heat. “Such oils would not even be considered olive oil under IOC standards,” Wang wrote in pre-hearing testimony. The mismatch makes a one-size-fits-all standard a questionable proposition.

As much as they try to match up with California’s product, the proposed standards aren’t perfect. A “use before” date that tells the consumer when the olive oil may begin to degrade will not be mandatory. And the term “cold-pressed” is left in play, even though it’s a marketing term that sounds nice but doesn’t mean anything because most olive oil is no longer pressed.

No matter how I try to see it the importers’ way, California ought to be able to control its own destiny on its own terms for its nascent olive oil industry. It’s at a stage now that our wine industry experienced when it began to grow out of its Carlo Rossi jugs.

Exceeding agricultural standards is the California way. We have our own standards for everything from tomato solids to the size of plums. While olive oil’s required chemical analyses make the olive oil commission’s proposed standards a different and much more technical issue, it’s hard to fault creative upstarts for refusing to track with Europe’s standards.

As long as there has been olive oil, there have been rogue producers who think nothing of slapping an extra-virgin label on a bottle of canola oil. Or of tinting hazelnut oil green with food coloring, calling it extra-virgin and getting top dollar, or top euro, while the hapless shopper gets scammed. The International Olive Council says standards prevent fraud, but fraud is still rampant.

If California shows that adjustments to laws improve the quality and purity standards, and that these standards are providing better olive oil with labels that consumers understand, could a national standard be next? If the U.S. passes a tougher national standard, a ripple effect would be felt around the globe. It’s a bit like when California told Detroit to increase gas mileage for automobiles; the rest of country eventually followed.

A decision will be made by Karen Ross, secretary of the California Department of Food and Agriculture, based on information from the July hearing. If approved, the standards would go into effect just in time for the fall olive harvest.

As an olive oil lover and an often-confused olive oil shopper, I will still seek extra-virgin olive oil from Italy, Spain, Greece, Tunisia, Israel and Australia groves. But I would look forward most of all to the proposed language for the labels, which will shorten my reading time in the store by engaging only two terms to help me determine the highest grade: Extra-Virgin or Virgin.

I suspect we may never question whether the adjectives should have been “Virgin” and “A Little Bit Virgin.”