Understanding the New USDA Olive Oil Standards

Effective October 24, 2010, the United States has new Standards for Grades of Olive Oil and Olive-Pomace Oil. This is a revision of standards that have been in place since 1948. There is a lot of uncertainty over what these standards will mean for olive oil in the US.  Some of the implications of the new standards are not entirely clear, but here we will try to answer the most common questions about what is and what is not covered by these standards.

What is covered by the new US Department of Agriculture (USDA) standards?

The USDA standards define the different grades of olive oil and olive-pomace oil
using chemical and sensory parameters that are similar to those of the
International Olive Council (IOC). These standards are for:

  • US Extra Virgin Olive Oil
  • US Virgin Olive Oil
  • US Virgin Olive Oil Not Fit For Human Consumption Without Further Processing
    (sometimes designated as US Lampante Virgin Olive Oil)
  • US Olive Oil
  • US Refined Olive Oil
  • US Olive-Pomace Oil
  • US Refined Olive-Pomace Oil
  • US Crude Olive-Pomace Oil

You can download the new USDA standard in its entirety here:  Standards for Grades of Olive Oil and Olive-Pomace Oil

The USDA standards are voluntary, and cover the terms “US Extra Virgin,” etc. This means that producers may choose to seek certification by the USDA as “US Extra Virgin Olive Oil” if they wish, but that it is not mandatory.

Does this mean there will be no impact on olive oils that do not choose to use the “U.S.” grade designations?

That remains to be seen. The USDA is not an enforcement agency; it defines standards, and it serves as an inspection agency. It is the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) that actually does the regulation. The Federal Register puts it this way:

“The [olive oil standards] revision will facilitate the marketing of olive oil and olive-pomace oil, employ terms consistent with the marketplace, provide definitions for olive oil and olive-pomace oil, promote truth in labeling, and provide a basis for enforcement by State and Federal agencies if these products are mislabeled.”
(Federal Register / Vol. 75, No. 81 / Weds. April 28, 2010 / Notices)

The key phrase here is “truth in labeling.” Truth in labeling issues fall under the purview of the FDA. Allegations of truth in labeling violations are a likely place for the next chapter to start. Now that we have a US standard for “extra virgin olive oil,” there is a strong case to be made that anyone calling themselves “extra virgin olive oil” should meet that standard or they are using misleading labeling language. The next year will be an interesting one as the impact of the new standard is tested in the marketplace and, possibly, in the courts.

If they are not mandatory, what is the point of having USDA standards?

The existence of the USDA standards is a critical first step to enforcing some meaningful quality standards in this country. There is also the possibility that private entities, such as supermarket chains, and public entities, such as school lunch programs, will require USDA certification for all the olive oil they purchase. That would have an enormous impact. There is also a possible market advantage to having the USDA grade shield on your product. If consumers learn to look for that certification as their guarantee of quality in olive oil, then it could confer an edge in the marketplace, as in years past when the USDA grade shield was something people looked for on canned goods or meat, for example, or the way the USDA Organic shield serves today.

How does the USDA certification process work?

In order to be certified as US Extra Virgin Olive Oil, the product must be inspected by the USDA. This means that a USDA inspector will pull samples according to a statistically designed protocol and submit them for analysis. The standard requires that the product that is sampled and certified is verifiably the same product that is sold as such. This means that one sample cannot be tested and the determined grade regarded as covering the entire production of that year. If a tank of oil is inspected and graded, it is only that tank of oil that can bear the USDA grade. Because of the perishable nature of olive oil, there is also likely to be some protocol providing for updating of an inspection. The details of how this would function are to be determined. The inspector will submit samples to a selected lab, but simultaneously, samples will be sent to the USDA laboratory in Blakely, Georgia. The chemical requirements, and explanations of the different tests, are in the Standards for Grades of Olive Oil and Olive-Pomace Oil Appendix.   The standard calls for sensory evaluation as well as the chemical analysis.

Who will do the sensory analysis?

The USDA lab in Blakely, Georgia is establishing an olive oil taste panel using the IOC protocols. The IOC protocols and recognition process are described here: International Olive Council (IOC) Olive Oil Sensory Evaluation Methodology (PDF). The USDA has staff people with experience in sensory analysis of various products. According to the USDA, the sensory panel at Blakely will be trained and capable of analyzing samples when the standard goes into effect on Oct. 25, 2010.

How do other countries handle the enforcement of olive oil standards?

The IOC defines the standard but does not do any enforcement. In fact, the IOC cannot require a member nation to enforce the standard; the burden of enforcement lies entirely with the government of the member nation or its designated regional authority. The IOC can make agreements with groups as well as nations; for example the IOC has an agreement with the North American Olive Oil Association (NAOOA) to analyze oils in IOC-recognized labs (they do not do sensory analysis for the NAOOA).

The case of enforcement in Spain (home of the IOC) is fairly typical: inspectors from a regional authority purchase random samples of olive oil from supermarket shelves. These samples are sent to an official food lab belonging to that regional authority. Sensory evaluation is not being done by all the regions, but there is a final arbiter in the form of a Spanish government food lab taste panel in Madrid. A producer can ask for triplicate analysis in the event of a controversy.

In Spain and elsewhere, notably Germany and Australia, some supermarket chains are testing olive oils for compliance with standards. This “gatekeeper” approach takes the onus off the government regulators and puts it on the producer: in order to sell to that market chain, you must prove that your oil meets the applicable standard. If you don’t wish to do so, that’s fine, but you won’t be able to sell your oil to that supermarket chain.

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This article was last updated November 8, 2014 - 9:46 AM (GMT-5)

  • AmyJohnk

    You state here that the NAOOA does not do organoleptic testing, but in a document on their website entitled North American Olive Oil Association Seal Licensing Agreement they state on page 2 that they do include organoleptic testing by an IOC certified panel?