Adam Englehardt, vice president of California Olive Ranch is among those leading an effort to draft a federal marketing order for olive oil.

American olive oil producers are drafting a federal marketing order that would set higher quality standards, redefine grades and require new testing of all olive oil produced here. If they can get the order adopted by the USDA, industry sources say, domestic producers will push for the rules to apply to imports too.

The effort is the latest in a series of initiatives intended to level the playing field with olive oil importers who have long enjoyed an absence of quality enforcement in the world’s biggest market. The result has been an extra virgin grade with no real meaning, and an American public so accustomed to rancid olive oil, they actually prefer it in taste tests.

A draft of the marketing order (PDF) was first presented at a January conference held in Dixon, California and later discussed at a California State Senate subcommittee informational hearing.

Marketing orders are enforced by the USDA at the request of domestic growers to establish quality standards and pool their resources.

Section 8e of the Agricultural Marketing Agreement Act of 1937 (PDF) provides that when certain domestically produced commodities are regulated by a federal marketing order, imports must also meet the quality standards.

Oranges and tomatoes are among the imported commodities subject to marketing orders under Section 8e, and California olive oil producers will likely be waging a campaign to include olive oil in that group.

An outline of the marketing order was obtained by Olive Oil Times.

While those involved said the draft is being updated continuously as an advisory committee receives feedback from industry stakeholders and grower organizations, some of the main points of the working document are:

  • Sweeping new labeling guidelines including specifications for best-by dates, grades and origin claims
  • Producers would be required to have oils tested using new methods proven to be better at detecting adulteration
  • Oils in the extra virgin grade would need to meet a series of new chemical specifications including a limit of 0.5% for free fatty acidity


California State Senator Lois Wolk (left), Adam Englehardt (California Olive Ranch), Paul Miller (Australian Olive Association), Bob Bauer (NAOOA) and Dan Flynn (UC Davis) at an informational hearing of the California State Senate Subcommittee on Olive oil and Emerging Products on January 26.

In response to the move, the North American Olive Oil Association, which is made up of the largest olive oil importers and distributors, alerted its members to “contact your national representatives,” (PDF) and NAOOA Vice President Eryn Balch called the draft “an attempt to restrict trade by completely eliminating several categories of olive oil, while also imposing rejected test methods on the industry.”

Not surprisingly, some in the domestic industry see it differently. California consultant Alexandra Devarenne said the U.S. industry was “just plain doing the right thing here by allying itself clearly and firmly with quality,” in a move that will benefit all honest traders.

The stakes are big for foreign and domestic producers who see the potential in the huge American market, where even an incremental rise in per capita consumption would provide a much-needed boost for a global olive oil industry roiling in a prolonged pricing crisis, and teetering on the edge of profitability.

The International Olive Council, whose member countries (the U.S. not being one of them) account for more than 98 percent of the global olive oil production, has not commented on the recent developments in California which are at odds with the IOC’s mandate to establish common international rules and “harmonize” laws to facilitate trade.

IOC Executive Director Jean-Louis Barjol has made it a priority for his administration to bring the United States into the ranks of IOC member countries. That prospect seems less likely now, and producers in the U.S. say they have little confidence that the Madrid-based, U.N.-sanctioned organization can bring about meaningful change in an industry long famous for its deceptive practices.

Critics say the current sleight-of-hand wording on labels permitted by the international standard and its lax chemical benchmarks are carefully crafted to facilitate unethical practices like passing deoderized oils off as extra virgin. It only seems more suspicious when representatives of major olive oil companies oppose the use of sensory assessment panels (experts trained to detect defective olive oil samples), calling them “too subjective.”

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