By Sarah Schwager
Olive Oil Times Contributor | Reporting from Buenos Aires

A blow-up in Spain over the use of organoleptic analysis in extra virgin olive oil after recent fraud results could be the start of something big, according to industry experts.

In November and December, a number of packaged olive oils were found to be fraudulent for failing to contain the quality of oil that was written on the label.

Now, olive oil associations Asoliva, Anierac, Infaoliva and Agri-food Cooperatives Spain have sent a letter to the Spanish Ministry of Environment, Rural and Marine Affairs (MARM), condemning “serious problems” arising from the organoleptic
analysis method for the classification of olive oil.

The four groups of producers and industrials claim that the method is subjective as the testing panel is based on sensory tasting which, they say, is unreliable.

In the letter, the group states that all olive oil producing countries highly question the testing panel method and are concerned that these “subjective methods” highlight the vulnerability of the sector, which in turn is creating “a false and unnecessary concern among consumers, and is disgracing oils, businesses and brands, not only in Spain but worldwide.”

They have demanded that MARM avoid the label of “fraud” when referring to olive oil and that testing be conducted before it is delivered for commercial use, when problems in the oil as a result of its packaging, preservation and display on the shelves can occur.

The associations have also requested an immediate halt to testing to prevent further discrediting EVOO, whose image, they say, has been “badly damaged around the world.”

However, the virgin olive oil sector with Designation of Origin in Spain (DOS) has expressed surprise at the letter.

José Manuel Bajo Prados, Executive Secretary of DOS’s National Sector, says “it is incomprehensible that those who portray themselves as representing the industry are trying to delete one of the few tools that the producer, processor and packer have to ensure consumers that Spanish olive oil is of the utmost quality”.

“The development of companies operating under a DO is based on quality criteria and these objectives have largely led to a significant improvement on the image of Spanish EVOO around the world,” Mr Bajo Prados said.  “We must ensure that the consumer takes home what it says on the label as with any other product. Organoleptic assessment has been a valid tool for the past 25 years.”

Secretary of the Andalusian sector, Moisés Caballero Páez, says one of the few protections that producers have is differentiation of price by quality, with tasting
being the only method which currently exists to ensure these differences.

He says it seems incredible that these associations are making petitions on behalf of the entire sector that only appear to respond to the particular interests of a group of companies.

A technical article in the Spanish Association of Olive Municipalities’s (AEMO) e-Olivar Bulletin has slammed the letter, saying “we think that organizations can ask for what they deem appropriate but, honestly, we do not understand the signatures of almost anyone on that letter, especially that of Agri-food Cooperatives, because Agri-food Cooperatives are above all olive growers and, although unorganized, we are not suicidal”.

“We hope that not all those who make up these organizations believe what is expressed in this letter,” it said.

The Bulletin says the only way to sensually characterize oils is through groups of people who are properly trained and under strict rules that are clear, transparent and internationally recognized.

“So why are they questioning something now that is so obvious? The sale of extra virgin olive oils advances every day over olive oil and this is because the consumer, especially abroad, begins to learn the benefits of olive oil over refined oil, both the organoleptic and, above all, health advantages. They are two different products and the public is beginning to recognize it.”

It says the problem arises when “you want to sell something of higher quality but do not want to pay as such”.

“There is only one solution: seek real extra virgin olive oils and value them as such, or buy lampante oils, refine them and label them with their name … because getting rid of organoleptic characterization, gentlemen, is not the solution.”

In AEMO’s official stance on the issue, Agronomist and Editor in Chief of the AEMO Bulletin José Maria Penco told Olive Oil Times AEMO is committed to the quality of olive oil and considers the parameter of organoleptic assessment necessary for the classification of oils, along with the other physico-chemical indices, so as to ensure that the product offered to consumers is of the highest quality.

“That said, AEMO also believes that the procedure for taking samples and certification of the testing panels must be carried out with the greatest level of security possible and certify total guarantee of the method and protection of producers,” Mr. Penco said.

In order to ease the four associations’ concerns, the DO says it is willing to join a working group in order to seek further improvements in current methods and provide information to consumers.  It is also preparing a letter to Spain’s Minister of Environment, Rural and Marine Affairs Rosa Aguilar and the regional Agriculture Ministries in order to express strong support for market controls and to show its interest in collaborating with the entire olive and olive oil sector to improve the reliability of controls in EVOO.

The e-Olivar Bulletin says Spain’s olive oil sector is in a difficult position, with olive groves facing their third year of losses, the economic crisis has affected consumers’ buying habits, EVOO “hook” offers reoffend again and again in Spanish supermarkets, packers are forced to cut costs to impossible limits in order to meet demand, and new plantations are beginning to show their productive potential.

“There are many circumstances that have stirred the sector but that should never make us lose sight, because it would be a strategic and historical mistake, in this turmoil, if we degraded the great strength of our product: quality and its guarantee.  “It would be an irreversible path to nowhere.”

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