business news in context, analysis with attitude

The Los Angeles Times this morning reports that “the International Olive Council, a Madrid organization whose product standards are the basis for new federal olive oil regulations,” is weighing in on the recent report that questioned the purity of many extra virgin olive oils sold on the market, issuing “a scathing rebuttal” to the findings.

The original report was conducted by the University of California, Davis Olive Oil Chemistry Laboratory and the Australian Oils Research Laboratory, and found that almost 70 percent of imported extra virgin olive oils and 10 percent of domestic extra virgin olive oils did not meet the International Olive Council and U.S. Dept. of Agriculture taste, smell and chemical standards for extra virgin olive oil.” All of the brands tested were bought in a variety of US supermarkets.

The International Olive Council has now joined with the North American Olive Oil Association (NAOOA) in fighting back against the charges, with the international group saying that the findings and methodology were questionable, and that too few products were examined to make the test statistically significant.

According to the Times, “In comparison, the council said it annually conducts chemical tests on 200 samples of imported oils sold in the U.S. as part of its routine quality control efforts, and ‘anomalies are detected in less than 10%’ of the samples, according to the statement.”

The researchers at UC Davis continue to stand by the report.

The puts the controversy in context: “The UC Davis Olive Center findings, which came out as the U.S. Department of Agriculture rolls out new standards aimed at cleaning up what has long been a slippery business, sent a shockwave through the industry, which has faced mounting criticism over accurate labeling practices.

“The purity issue also remains a serious concern for some consumers. In the past, some state agencies have uncovered oils labeled 100% extra-virgin olive oil that were blended with cheaper canola or nut oils, which can be a serious health threat to people with allergies. (No such mixing was found in the UC Davis report.)

“Money is also at stake, because extra-virgin oil can be marketed as a premium retail product. A typical 750-milliliter bottle of olive oil can sell for $8 or less, while the same size bottle of high-end extra virgin oil can go for $12 or more.”
KC's View:
First of all, as noted here before, California Olive Ranch - a longtime and valued MNB sponsor - was one of the companies that contributed to the funding of this study, though it had absolutely no input into the methodology or outcome. (I’d help fund a study, too, if I knew that I was being honest about my product.)

In some ways, it strikes me that some of this discussion is about semantics - after all, the offending study said that 10 percent of US olive oils were not what they said they were, while the international group used the 10 percent figure to describe all of the anomalies that it finds; it is on oils produced outside the US that the Madrid-based group gets more defensive...which may or may not have more to do with geography and economics than with science. (The North American Olive Oil Association uses the same 10 percent figure, BTW...)

What bothers me is the idea that being wrong 10 percent of the time on the purity of a bottle of EVOO is somehow acceptable. That’s just wrong.

I cannot help but think that the folks getting so defensive about what appears to be legitimate criticism may be most bothered by transparency that they cannot control...but must get used to.

Consumers - and, even if it does think so, the olive oil industry - are all better off for people raising these issues and forcing greater honesty and accuracy.