Group Says Olive Oil Tasting Panels Create “False Concern”

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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This article was last updated April 17, 2011 - 8:13 PM (GMT-5)

  • Phyllis Heard

    If all extra virgin olive oil producers stated on the label their polyphenol levels [as required by entrants into Australian National Olive oil awards] consumers would have an indication of how long the oil will last,the health of the oil and the style of the oil.An accredited,independant Organoleptic panels sole function is to taste for faults according to the IOOC fault definitions of rancidity,fusty, musty etc.A polyphenol rating on the oil before it is retailed is a sensible food safety precaution and will indicate to the consumer along with a pressing date if and when oxidation or deterioration is likely to occur.It also offers protection to organoleptic panel members who in an increasingly litiginous world will face legal acountability. If they are known to have vested interests and conflicts of interest they will not have a leg to stand on.

    If polyphenols are added to oil to raise antioxidant levels+disguise “faults” the organoleptic panel and laboratory testing will detect this.As oil and water don’t mix an aqueous form of anti oxidant will be easily detectable.Adding oleocanthal or oleurepein to a refined olive or vegetable oil can be detected in both the lab and by the expert panel.

    Descriptors such as fruitiness, balance,complexity of oil are marketing terms and are all culturally subjective.Olive oil does not develop flavours overtime it simply oxidises.If a consumer is not made aware of this and purchases a bottle believing it will last for up to two years he will feel ripped off and develop a resistance to all olive products.The “food friendly” average oils that are resulting from current marketing strategies in California and Australia are the marketing equivalent of shooting yourself in the foot.The wine industry uses oxidisation to create products and it works to its advantage. An extra virgin olive oil producer does not have that luxury yet we are using a wine industry model to market a product with a very limited shelf life. Crazy? Time will tell.

    An American consumer’s perception of “bitter” or “delicate” will be quite different from a Spanish,Indian or Australian consumers.Science is showing consumers that a healthy extra virgin olive oil is a bitter oil with a good cough.Standardising cultural defintions of taste will give us all average oil from a culinary and health perspective. It may be what the big producers in Australia,Spain and California want but science is making consumers increasingly savvy. Sensory experts are in danger of doing the work of those two textile merchants who sold the emperor his new clothes.Just like in that story the healthy robust kid with the honest argument won the day,the charlatans were run out of town and only the strutting emperor was exposed for the fool he was.

  • Richard Gawel

    Extra virgin olive oil is a food not a medicine. Food friendly EVOO’s can be bitter or not bitter. It is all about using the right style of oil in the right context. Using a mild EVOO when basting a roast would be a complete waste of time. The flavours of the roasted meat crust would just swamp it, so the olive flavours that you pay hamsomely for become redundant. Conversely recently while on holidays last week I bought a new seasons commercial very sweet mild oil from a latenight supermarket (that I know had a good chemistry from my links to the industry, and with a polyphenol level around 150 from a quick taste). I put it in a frypan on a highish gas (didn’t smoke a bit due to its low acidity) and fried some potato slices. We were sharing a holiday house while on a basketball camp with a young family who didn’t buy EVOO as a rule, and the young 12 year old girl who was friends with my daughter tasted them and said out of the blue “you can come around and cook these at our place anyday”. If every EVOO producer could strive to get one “run under their belt” like this one we would all be better off. So lets get away from this ridiculous (and also a marketing based) argument about whether an EVOO has to have high polyphenols to be high quality or somehow more authentic or legitimate. Quality can only be measured by fitness for purpose or meeting the needs of the consumer. If I cooked those same wedges using a high polyphenol bitter olive oil I would have got a ‘yuk’. I know I’ve done it! Incidentally the girls father asked if he could have the remaining l in the bottle as his daughter liked it so much. I bet he doesn’t buy canola again. (but I also told him to buy something with a bit more oomph if he wanted to baste his next roast or make a toasted tomato, garlic and basil open sandwich.

  • Michael

    First: Phyllis, it actually isn’t true that the organoleptic panel only screens for defects. The IOC standard for EVOO states: “Extra virgin olive oil: the median of the defects is 0 and the median of the fruity attribute is above 0 … When the median of the bitter and/or pungent attribute is more than 5.0, the panel leader shall state so on the test certificate. ”

    So an oil has to have at least some positive attributes to qualify as EVOO.

    Second: the value of the organoleptic panel, and of the German and Australian standards for 1,2 diacylglycerol (DAG) and pyropheophytins (PPP) testing, was shown clearly in the UC Davis investigation.If you look at Table 3 of their report, you’ll see that the IOC-required organoleptic test flunks out all the oils with overly-low DAG ratio except one, and same with the PPP (the offending oil is the same bottle as slipped by on DAGs), even when all their IOC-required chemistry is in order.

    So (a) all hail the well-educated palate! and (b) the DAG and PPP tests clearly are catching on to the same defects that an experienced and independent tasting panel picks up on, validating the need to expand the IOC tests to include the new AOA/DGF tests to ensure quality olive oil.