New Book Accuses Council of Holding Olive Oil to ‘Lowest Denominator’

In the new book, Extra Virginity: The Sublime and Scandalous World of Olive Oil, there’s plenty of blame to go around for the “widespread dumbing down of olive oil quality,” but author Tom Mueller reserves perhaps his most direct castigation for the International Olive Council.

International Olive Council Executive Director Jean-Louis Barjol (left) and Tom Mueller at the Beyond Extra Virgin Conference in Córdoba, Spain June 2011.

“Today this once-progressive organization, which invented a revolutionary definition of olive oil quality and spread the gospel of good oil in many parts of the world,” Mueller writes, “all too often helps to hold extra virgin quality to the lowest common denominator, protecting the interests of Big Oil rather than helping producers of genuine extra virgins – much less consumers.”

The International Olive Council (IOC) is the intergovernmental organization formed by the United Nations in 1959 to provide financial and technical assistance to its eighteen member countries. The agency established groundbreaking scientific taste tests and chemical limits for olive oil grades, set the rules of trade and guided the industry through decades of expansion.

In 2002, the agency’s Executive Director, Fausto Luchetti, was accused by the European Union of mismanaging IOC funds and resigned. Since then the resources allocated to the Council have been sharply reduced — even while global olive oil production has soared to 3 million tons.

Lately the olive oil industry has been struggling with a wrenching crisis brought on by mass-market price wars and a flood of low quality olive oil — a lot of it falsely labelled extra virgin.

Countless olive oil producers teeter on the edge of viability. Many farms are calculating now, in the midst of the Northern Hemisphere’s harvest season, whether it’s even worth pulling the olives from the trees for crushing, or let them fall to the ground and rot away.

Prices recently hit levels low enough in Spain to trigger the so-called “private storage aid” from the European Union, where qualifying producers can receive payments for keeping their olive oil in tanks for six months, withholding the supply from the market.

Up-and-coming New World producers, unable to compete on price with the lower-quality, subsidized imports are growing louder, desperately calling for consumers to consider olive oil quality in their buying decisions. For some, time is running out. At least one major producer — Kailis Organic in Australia — has reportedly filed for bankruptcy protection, according to a source.

Jean-Louis Barjol, in his first year leading the agency, has called for greater cooperation as he grapples with the pricing crisis, highly-publicized reports critical of olive oil quality, and New World challenges to the IOC trade standards.

When Tom Mueller was asked if he thought Jean-Louis Barjol was doing enough to change things, his reply was. “Hmm. No.”

In a phone interview, Mueller, whose first book is days from its release, said of the IOC director, “Based on his IOC-led offensive in Australia, which is really quite amazing, I don’t believe Barjol will lead change in the direction of promoting olive oil quality.” Mueller was referring to the IOC response to the new quality standard recently adopted in Australia.

“Barjol and other representatives of major olive oil concerns in the Old World have their hands tied politically, socially and economically from really making a move to quality because they have so many people to take care of and such a huge economic responsibility to their constituents — many of whom are making commodity oil. So they (the IOC) have a hard time acting for quality.”

Mueller nevertheless believes the presence of Barjol and representatives from the powerful Spanish trade group Interprofesional del Aceite de Oliva Español at the June, 2011 Beyond Extra Virgin conference in Córdoba, Spain was an “historic event.”

“I think they do realize that the model they have — commoditizing a potentially highly valuable product, and driving it to the lowest common denominator — is broken, and I think they see that something has to happen. But they are in a very difficult position to make that push for quality. And the tactics they’re using to prevent that from happening in export markets are scandalous.  They are not, unfortunately, representing olive oil in its best light and that doesn’t serve their long-term interests.”

Asked about the $1.7 million campaign recently launched by the IOC to promote olive oil consumption in North America, Mueller had this to say:

“You know, I think I checked out their Facebook page for about five minutes, and there was Mercedes, and there was Fashion Week, and there were some very stylish people in the kitchen drinking wine, and I kept looking, and kept looking and I couldn’t see any olive oil. They’re not talking about what’s in the bottle, and is it excellent.”

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This article was last updated October 12, 2014 - 7:56 PM (GMT-5)

  • Phyllis Heard

    The Kailis Organics bankruptcy was inevitable and no amount of “greenwashing” could prop up a company built on sand.Kailis organics along with  Boundary Bend and Cobram estate, are or were supergrove producers.Just like some  Northern Hemisphere producers they largely produce oil grown in an unsustainable monoculture.The Australian supergroves all produce  bulk, commodity extra virgin oil most of which appears to be of  “average” quality according to IOC/EU standards. The organoleptic assessment regarding the “exceptional” quality of Australian  oils appears to be as a result of an extensive “New World” prolific and frequent olive oil award system where medals are given out at a rate that commodifies them. The organoleptic assessment of these oils  is conducted at Wagga Wagga Research Laboratory,UC Davis extension panel or Modern Olives own laboratory all certified to IOC standards.The IOC is ok to defer to for some standards it seems  but not for others. We call that Cherry picking here in New Zealand.
      Kailis organics  took over Great Southern Investment olive groves largely subsidised by Australian Government retirement Tax shelter money. This looks like  a subsidy in a different hat. Can Tom Mueller answer How it this different from an EU subsidy? At least all Olive growers in the Old World receive an EU subsidy not just the Supergroves.
      All pre 2008 investors in Modern Olives, Boundary Bend and Cobram estates[ all subsidiaries of  Timbercorp] and Great Southern Olives  lost money and ultimately so did the  Australian Government and citizens.  
      The New World Australian supergroves were all purchased at  firesale prices after being placed in “administration” and “water rights” or Licences  for the olive groves were then sold to farmers or horticultural producers. The water licence sales in fact  financed the sale of the Supergroves to the current owners. The most valuble commodity in Australia is water.The new Supergrove investors purchased  the groves very cheaply if development costs were taken into consideration  because there was no profit left in Australian olives by 2008. If the recent Aldi testing is to be believed imported oils into Australia have less of a carbon footprint than locally grown Australian supergrove oil.Whose standards should those of us not wanting to play with the Australian Olive Associations voluntary standards choose?Perhaps all producers of sustainable extra virgin olive oil should combine?
       Mr Mueller should understand that Bulk Australian olive oil is contributing to the world wide glut of extra virgin commodity olive oil it is not just EU oil driving this.Those of us producing sustainable, agrichem free,  high quality extra virgin olive oil with no water footprint or carbon emission issues and no EU or Australian government tax break subsidies are affected by the glut too.Fair? The informed consumer will ultimately decide. While everybody fights for the moral highground Canola,Ricebran,Coconut and Avocado oils are taking the territory by stealth.
       To claim superiority for Southern Hemisphere olive oil based on a short  history of a double bankruptcy or ‘administration’ is crazy. Can Tom Mueller answer the question…….  Why are Australian Supergroves and their employees who have set the “New World standards somehow morally superior to EU subsidised groves with Mafioso or corrupt olive oil adulterators hiding in every corner? Makes a good story sells a few books but the history of food and wine  is full of fraudsters and cheats. It’s all about authentication really and good science is taking care of that.
    Isn’t a new definition for extra virgin olive oil required for this industry to survive at all? How about an International agreement on real extra virginity by testing for adulteration,CE, standardising food safety,traceability and testing for safe levels of pesticide and fungicide residues? Then you are talking real extra virgin standards. Perhaps we are all there already?.  

  • j. aceite

    Fausto Luchetti did a great job to build olive oil around the world. He was a scapegoat.

  • Graham

    It’s an old, and not a very good trick, when a business such as Kailis Organic in Australia falls into bankruptcy, for the owners to blame it on anything but themselves.A huge part of the Australian olive groves were developed through tax schemes, and their main purpose was to reduce tax for investors, not to necessarily have a realistic and viable business plan.

    If you look at the results for Boundary Bend, the largest Australian producer, you get 2009 $18 million loss, 2010 $8 million trading loss (turned into net profit by tax accounting), 2011 $14 million loss. A large part of the business is the ex-Timbercorp tax-scheme plantations which went bankrupt, and so you have to ask if this business ever was going to or ever will make a profit. Their only answer now is to blame it on imported olive oil and try to force it off the market with their unique Olive Oil Standard, which looks very suspiciously like to good old Australian trick of blatant protectionism. Perhaps the reality is that they were never going to be competitive in the marketplace, with the inevitable result.

  • Rwhiting

    Look guys I am sick of hearing about how evil the “Tax Schemes ” were / have been, in Australia. The simple fact is that there was no change in the tax law to allow these to happen, they operated under the same tax system that applies to anyone running a buisness in agriculture.
    I dont know if Phyllis is running a buisness or a hobby farm but if she were running a buisness in australia growing olives she would have had acess to the same tax tules as timbercorp.
    I hope Phyllis knows the difference between a tax deduction and a Chq.

    Then Phyllis goes on to criticise the new australian standard while proposing yet another that would suit her better.


  • Richard Gawel

    People shouldn’t be distracted by the poisonous and ill-informed  views of a vocal minority.

    The thrust of Tom Muellers book is that good hard working and legitimate EVOO producers and their retailers everywhere are finding it very difficult to make a profit and survive in a marketplace that is dogged with corrupt and fruadulent practices. The International body that continually claims to police such practices under this EU resolution or that resolution has been shown to be  largely ineffective. And when they claim to police something, they do it in a secretive fashion – no information on what they did, when they did it, or what they found. Sir Humphrey from Yes Minister would be proud.

    So it’s time to draw a line in the sand. It doesn’t matter if it is Australian sand or Jerez sand or Umbrian sand. It doesn’t matter if you are labelled a supergrove or a boutique grove or some other label in between. It doesn’t matter if you are organic, biodynamic or neither. Labels are just that – labels. LOW EVOO prices resulting from fraudulent cutting with other seed oils or deodorised oils will end up  driving everyone broke (except the deodorisers and seed oil producers, and hobby farmers/gardeners with one or two other sources of income who rely on tourist sales for pocket money).

    “Graham” states that Boundary Bend have been operating under losses. If this is the case, then what chance does anyone have? They would be close to the most efficient medium density EVOO producer in the world, if non the most efficient. So if they can’t make a quid because of the historically low prices then no-one can. It strengthens the arguement that a lot stinks in the world of EVOO.

  • Anonymous

    I use EVOO and a lot of it.  It is seriously expensive, but one of the “Luxury” options in my kitchen.  While I’m generally pleased with the oil that I use, I tasted several other EVOOs this year that are far superior.  While I generally trust my supplier, I’m beginning to wonder about the honesty of *their* suppliers.  In the near future, I’ll be asking some questions and, perhaps about the chemical properties of the oil that I use.  These multiple stories are troublesome and even distressing at times.  While I do not believe that my EVOO is in the ‘motor oil,’ class, I have to wonder if I’m getting screwed.  If so and sadly, It has been going on for some years.  I think about this everytime I pour some oil and no, I am NOT happy. 

    • Amanda Bailey

      I hear you and I believe alot of consumers will feel cheated….  Personally, I don’t blame you.

      The best step as you say is to ask the questions.

      Certainly if you are tasting differences then you are on the right track.

      In Australia there is a symbol which is found on certified EVOO.  If you are in Australia you could look for this.  Otherwise, you could ask your Olive Association if there are any such programs in your country.

      Please feel free to ask me any questions, you can contact me at 

      Please also pass on the news to all that you know!

  • Amanda Bailey

    Controversy…. Olive oil is indeed caught up and as Tom Mueller calls it “a slippery world”…. there is always the side who is morally & ethically right and then there’s the side of wrongdoer’s or crooks.

    The standard has now been put in place…. it is sickening that  Australia has been a dumping ground for so long.  Also,  our growers competing with oil that’s not oil is a joke…  I believe the IOC is accountable by abrogating this trade behaviour for such companies and letting it get out of control!

    You must ask the question… what was their motivation in all of this?

    The word is out to the world… bring on the New Alliance it is well overdue so we can define quality in honest terms!

    Otherwise you are just deluding yourself or your part of the crooks! 

  • Dolores Smith

    As an importer of top quality olive oil I agree that currently the entire industry is marketing olive oil in such a way that the consumer has no idea about differences in grades of quality and whether they are paying a fair price…nor helping them understand such issues.  Also believe that the IOC campaign to promote olive oil in North America will be a waste of money – definitely don’t believe the creative approach chosen by the advertising agency is appropriate.   Even a simple Internet search on food trends will signal a totally different direction than that of associating olive oil to expensive luxury items.