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Bring It On: Olive Oil Importers Welcome More Testing by FDA

Members of the House Committee on Appropriations have called on the Food and Drug Administration to update its report on the authenticity of extra virgin olive oil sold in the U.S.

Jul. 20, 2017
By Anthony Vasquez-Peddie

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In its fight to defend the integrity of mass-mar­ket olive oils, a trade group of Amer­i­can importers says it’s ready to go another round.

A recent report by the House Com­mit­tee on Appro­pri­a­tions for the upcom­ing fed­eral bud­get bill called on the U.S. Food and Drug Admin­is­tra­tion to update its 2015 study on the authen­tic­ity of extra vir­gin olive oil sold in the U.S.

The news was received with open arms by the North Amer­i­can Olive Oil Asso­ci­a­tion (NAOOA), accord­ing to interim exec­u­tive direc­tor Tom Mueller (not the Tom Mueller who wrote the exposés on olive oil frauds).

We wel­come it,” Mueller told Olive Oil Times. We think this type of rig­or­ous test­ing is impor­tant to ensure the total con­fi­dence of Amer­i­can con­sumers and to move away from some of the sub­jec­tive, false rhetoric we’ve seen around olive oil that isn’t based on inde­pen­dent, sci­en­tific test­ing.”

The pre­vi­ous FDA study, con­ducted in 2015, tested 88 prod­ucts labeled extra vir­gin olive oil. It used the gas chro­matog­ra­phy method adopted by the Inter­na­tional Olive Coun­cil to deter­mine the com­po­si­tion and con­tent of sterols and triter­pene dial­co­hol. Three sam­ples (3.4 per­cent) did­n’t meet purity cri­te­ria, laid out by the U.S. Depart­ment of Agri­cul­ture, based on desmethyl­s­terol and triter­pene dial­co­hol com­po­si­tions.

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That 3.4 per­cent would equate to more than 10,000 tons of olive oil con­sumed in the U.S. each year — or the annual con­sump­tion for around 10 mil­lion Amer­i­cans — that were pos­si­bly adul­ter­ated with com­mod­ity oil and/or sol­vent-extracted olive oil.” Fur­ther­more, the study tested olive oils labeled extra vir­gin for adul­ter­ation.

In fact, two of the three sam­ples FDA researchers spiked them­selves with 10 per­cent hazel­nut oil went unde­tected for adul­ter­ation.

Still, the NAOOA found rea­son to cheer.

The FDA’s find­ings are remark­ably con­sis­tent with test­ing we’ve done in inde­pen­dent IOC labs over 25 years, which has found that 98 per­cent of olive oil sold in U.S. retail out­lets is authen­tic and high-qual­ity,” Mueller said.

That might be a stretch. While the FDA study found that most oils tested were unadul­ter­ated, it did not mea­sure for high qual­ity or that the sam­ples met the chem­i­cal and sen­sory stan­dards for the grades indi­cated on their labels.

Con­grat­u­la­tions — most olive oil isn’t cut with bat­tery acid,” said a pro­ducer who sells the oil from his small fam­ily farm online and through farmer’s mar­kets. Test­ing for adul­ter­ation is one thing — and test­ing for qual­ity is another. Most peo­ple still don’t get extra vir­gin when they pay for extra vir­gin and the FDA test­ing does­n’t address that.”

While the rep­re­sen­ta­tives of mar­keters, pack­agers and importers that make up the NAOOA show bravado — olive oil’s virtue has been reg­u­larly tak­ing shots to the chin for quite some time.

Exam­ples include the arrests of dozens in Italy accused of export­ing fake olive oil to the U.S., an inves­ti­ga­tion into wide­spread mis­la­bel­ing of extra vir­gin olive oil in Brazil, a global oper­a­tion that seized $250 mil­lion in coun­ter­feit and sub­stan­dard food, and a Tai­wanese food mag­nate who received a two-year sen­tence as part of an olive oil taint­ing scan­dal — just to name a few that have occurred in the past year alone.

Most endur­ing, of course, was the study by the Uni­ver­sity of Cal­i­for­nia Davis with researchers in Aus­tralia in 2010 that found 69 per­cent of imported and 10 per­cent of Cal­i­for­nia olive oil sam­ples labeled extra vir­gin did not meet IOC and USDA sen­sory stan­dards, and it showed that the chem­i­cal tests failed to con­firm the sen­sory test results in a major­ity of cases.

For its part, the FDA says it is con­cerned about ensur­ing what’s on the label is deemed authen­tic in sim­ple terms, along with pro­tect­ing the pub­lic’s health.

Eco­nomic adul­ter­ation of olive oil reduces con­sumer con­fi­dence in the com­mod­ity and can poten­tially cir­cum­vent proper haz­ard con­trol and assess­ment,” FDA spokesper­son Mar­i­anna Naum told Olive Oil Times. There have been numer­ous reports of pos­si­bly adul­ter­ated olive oil. Our objec­tive as out­lined in the (2015) study was to see whether it was pos­si­ble to detect if an extra vir­gin olive oil had been adul­ter­ated with another type of oil.”

A report last year by the House Com­mit­tee on Appro­pri­a­tions called on the FDA to develop a test­ing sys­tem for all imported olive oils, which sug­gests lob­by­ing efforts to imple­ment a national stan­dard for qual­ity are suc­ceed­ing.

Olive oil stan­dards cur­rently exist in only four states, and there is no manda­tory fed­eral stan­dard,” Mueller said. A stan­dard of iden­tity would give the FDA, states and the indus­try a clear path to con­sis­tency and authen­tic­ity, encour­age fair deal­ing within the entire mar­ket­place and cre­ate greater pro­tec­tions for con­sumer inter­ests.”



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