Divergent Views on Proposed California Olive Oil Standards

The California Department of Food and Agriculture (CDFA) is facing a big workload. At a public hearing on July 15 in Sacramento, California, 49 witnesses testified on proposed olive oil grading and labeling standards, and many others submitted written comments. The CDFA must now sift through and analyze it all and make an official decision on recommendations proposed by the new Olive Oil Commission of California (OOCC). Had the public comments been heavily weighted in favor or in opposition to the standards, CDFA’s job would be easy, but there were strong opinions on both sides of the fence.

Earlier this year, the OOCC was created to enhance the competitiveness of California’s olive oil industry and improve consumer confidence in olive oil quality. Commission board members, elected from producers and handlers from across the state’s olive growing regions, recently submitted their grading and labeling recommendations to the CDFA. CDFA’s review process includes a public written comment period and a public hearing before the Agriculture Secretary will issue a final decision on whether the recommendations will become mandatory.

Kimberly Houlding, executive director of the American Olive Oil Producers Association commended the OOCC’s work. “The Commission did a very thorough job in making sure the standards are scientifically sound and make sense for California producers.”

Proponents of the proposed standards point to other California agricultural commodities that have benefited from enforceable standards. Jamie Johansson of the California Farm Bureau Federation noted that standards exist for 31 state commodities and they “improve customer satisfaction by ensuring only high quality products are marketed.”

Michael Kiey of Ramos & Kley Ranches believes that the standards will give consumers confidence in their purchases. “These are assurances that as a grower I am willing to pay for through my assessment dollars and [are] necessary for California to retain its reputation for producing high quality olive oil,” noted Kley in his written submission.

The proposed standards deviate in some areas from the International Olive Council and USDA standards. Supporters see the differences as strengths of the proposal. Dr. Rodney Mailer of the Australian Oils Research Laboratory indicated that European standards, including those setting fatty acid and sterol limits, were based on Mediterranean conditions and do not consider regional and varietal differences. The European standards discriminate against oil produced in other areas, such as the U.S., Australia, South Africa and South America, said Mailer.

Without labelling standards, product grade standards and product testing, the ruse will continue.- Dick Neilsen, McEvoy Ranch

Bruce Golino, chair of the OOCC Standards Committee explained that under existing standards, some high quality California olive oils would not pass the purity test. “One of the first decisions we made was that no olive oil should be excluded because of its natural chemistry… we also understood the inherent illogic and unfairness of telling a grower who, for instance, happened to grow Koroneiki olives in Petaluma CA that the oil that came from those olives made in accordance with the standard was not olive oil. Yet, that is exactly what adopting a traditional standard would mean for California producers.”

Dan Flynn, executive director of the UC Davis Olive Center claims that importer concerns over changes in the fatty acid and sterol profiles are a “red herring.” Importers assume that existing IOC standards have adequately guarded against fraud, “which is clearly not the case.” Flynn also pointed out a new consumer protection measure in the proposed standard requiring traceability of the oil through its various processing stages.

Proposed labeling standards would prohibit the use of terms such as “Pure” and “Extra Light” because they mislead consumers. According to Dick Neilsen, general manager of McEvoy Ranch and a member of the OOCC, “Olive oils labeled “Pure”, a powerful word to American consumers, are refined, stripped of flavor and nutrients. Other labels read “Lite” and “Extra Lite”, imply few calories. Olive oils mislabeled “Extra Virgin” are found in almost all U.S. supermarkets, stores and shops. The fact is that these labels are intentionally misleading to the consumers and without labelling standards, product grade standards and product testing, the ruse will continue.”

The standards also set new grading definitions and recommend not using the words “olive oil” when referring to refined-olive oil blends or olive pomace oil. “Consumers and the trade need to understand the important quality difference between extra virgin/virgin olive oils, ‘the oils as they come from the olive,’ compared with the lower grade refined and pomace oils, ‘industrial manufactured olive oils’. The proposed California olive industry standard does this better than any of its many predecessors,” testified Paul Miller, president of the Australian Olive Association.

Opponents of the recommended grade and labeling standards do not believe that the requirements will achieve their desired objectives. The standard has been “sloppily and hurriedly patched together” and “it appears that supporters of the standard intend to favor the only grade commercially sold by local producers, extra virgin olive oil, by attempting to attach negative-sounding technical verbiage to lower grades, “ said Eryn Balch, Executive Vice President of the National American Olive Oil Association.

The idea of having differing sets of standards is viewed by some as confusing and inefficient. The International Olive Council’s (IOC) executive director Jean-Louis Barjol wrote that his organization administers the mandatory standards for member countries (the U.S. is not a member). The member nations provide 96 percent of the world’s olive oil exports. “…introducing new grade names, grade definitions and parameters that differ from those used by 96 percent of world exports would create consumer confusion.”

Written comments from Costco, ACME Food Sales, and Food Trading Specialties indicated that the proposed standards would cause a “significant burden” on the companies who would have to sell the same products under different names or change naming conventions. “The standards proposed by the Commission are inconsistent with well-established, commercially-accepted industry standards and will create disruption and increase confusion for both buyers and consumers.”

Challengers also dispute the validity of the science behind some of the standards. For example, the recommendations add new measures of quality, such as testing PPP and DAGs levels. “…the proven science supporting the existing IOC chemical test standards is much more comprehensive in identifying adulteration. Limiting chemical testing to primarily PPP and DAGs, will not detect adulteration and requires more scientific validation on effectiveness,” wrote John Akeson, CEO of Deoleo USA.

Although any standards adopted by the state would only apply to growers and handlers in California (who produce or handle more than 5,000 gallons per year), some see the potential for the standards to spread to domestic producers and importers. Eryn Balch, executive vice president of the North American Olive Oil Association (NAOOA), drew attention to recent lobbying efforts and press reports that indicate that advocates of the proposed standard will ultimately want the new rules to apply to all olive oils sold domestically. “The NAOOA does not see any productive results that would come from implementing the proposed standard, but can easily foresee the intrusive, burdensome, anti-competitive situation that would result for the overwhelming majority of olive oil suppliers, not just in California but across the U.S.,” Balch stated.

Mauro Battocchi from the European Union Delegation to the U.S. echoed the NAOOA’s concerns from an importer perspective. “While the proposed standards will only apply to California producers and handlers over a certain amount of production, the EU remains deeply concerned about possible implications to trade in the short and long term.”

Patricia Darragh, executive director of the California Olive Oil Council, said that she was perplexed by opposition speculation about how widespread the proposed standards could become. California accounts for only about three percent of U.S. oil consumption, so it is “blatantly untrue” that a goal of the supporters is to prevent imports, said Darragh. “California oil is unique — it is almost exclusively a premium product. The standards are directed solely at California producers.”

The CDFA will accept additional public comments until 4:00 PM (PST) on July 29. The department anticipates making a decision on the Commission recommendations within 45 days after the comment period closes. More information on the CDFA hearing and the process can be obtained on the CDFA website.

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This article was last updated November 17, 2014 - 11:49 AM (GMT-5)

  • Everyman

    Well, it is 2014 and the world moves forward towards more information for the consumer. Hopefully they do the right thing and take the COOC side on these standards.

    • briandear

      What they should do is just use the International standard and enforce that.

  • briandear

    “The standards are directed solely at California producers” ??? So does that mean that the new label requirements aren’t valid for non-California oils? The idea of having to produce a second “California” label and get tested at a “California approved lab” and jump through a bunch of hoops is nonsense. My French oil already exceeds the California standards by a dramatic margin (acidity at .12 for instance,) however to have to go through some “approval” process to have my bottles on the shelf? And, if the standards (including the label rules don’t apply to my oil and only California oils, then what’s the point? I’m also concerned that these “standards” are designed specifically to boost the California oil industry, but under the guise of “protecting” the consumer. Creating an entirely new standard is ridiculous. The problem isn’t the lack of a standard, the problem is label dishonesty.

    I’m just curious how the COOC seems to think they know Extra Virgin better than the IOOC. The arguments that they’re making that California oil is different doesn’t make much sense, at least in terms of the acidity standard. If the IOOC standard for acidity is .8 and California’s is .5, then the different “characteristics” of California oil don’t disadvantage the oil; in fact that oil would exceed the international standard.

    So you must ask yourself, why do they want a slightly lower acidity threshold. Who does it benefit? It doesn’t benefit the consumer. A .6 oil is indistinguishable from a .5 oil. Yet, if a .6 happens to be Italian, then that lower standard has the effective result of being anti-competitive, which is what this “consumer protection” Trojan Horse is really about. The whole thing just smacks of industrial collusion; a means to promote their own producers — at the potential expense of the consumer. Restricting supply by eliminating the .6 oils allows the “winners” to charge more. The job of a government isn’t to pick winners and losers, it’s to ensure that the public is protected from fraudulent products. The definition of extra-virgin doesn’t suddenly change at the California border. If California wants their own standard, they can call it Cali-Virgin or something equally ridiculous to inform the consumer that the oil does not conform with the widely accepted international standards. They themselves claim their oil is a “unique” product — as such it logically shouldn’t be using the term “extra virgin” unless it also happens to meet the international standard.

    • Nicolas

      Well, Briandear, the new standard does only apply to the Oils made in California but as you can see with the new rule about harvest date these rules have side effects that ultimately reduce the competitiveness of all the other oils. Welcome to California and American protectionism. http://www.oliveoiltimes.com/opinion/california-olive-oil-time-warp/41584