At this year’s Summer Fancy Food Show, we met up with Patricia Darragh, who has led the California Olive Council (COOC) as its executive director since October 1997. We asked Darragh about her experiences at the organization, its growth over the years, and the most important projects the COOC has taken on, as she reflected on twenty years amid the buzz of the convention hall.
After twenty years in the industry, I learn something new every day.
Darragh decided to assume her role at the Council in 1997 after finding inspiration in the local industry’s excitement at the time. “I fell in love with the industry during my interview. The board members were so passionate and committed to developing an organization focused on achieving high standards,” she remembered.
When Darragh began with the Council, it had no website. “Communications were rather primitive but [there were] tons of excitement and enthusiasm for the nascent industry. The enthusiasm remains.”
Since that time, Darragh notes two pivotal moments in the organization’s history. The first was when super-high-density production (SHD) was introduced in the state. In the throes of this period, Darragh explained that “the COOC was able to emerge as an organization that could successfully represent producers in all production size categories.” Today, the COOC proudly represents over ninety percent of California-based olive product producers among a wide variety of sizes and capabilities.
The organization experienced another crucial turning point in 1998 with the establishment of both the COOC Seal Certification Program and the taste panel, which will be celebrating their 20th anniversaries in 2018. Darragh said its taste panel was the first sensory panel for olive oil in North America.
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Throughout the industry’s progression, the COOC has achieved a number of what Darragh sees as landmark goals, the organization’s contribution to standards in grade verification and traceability chief among them. “The COOC seal is now recognized and sought after and the COOC has emerged as a leader in the industry for standards and quality,” she said. For the future, her primary goal is to “keep communicating and increase the demand for COOC-certified extra virgin olive oil.”
In order to achieve this objective, the organization has focused on improving its existing programs such as the taste panel and developing more educational projects. Beyond this, Darragh is also “planning a major strategic planning meeting for the board later this summer.”
As the industry continues to grow with the assistance of the COOC, Darragh believes California olive oil has achieved a unique position through its “unwavering focus on standards, truth in labeling and traceability.” Demand continues to increase and statewide, producers are hoping to position themselves collectively “as the source for authentic extra virgin olive oil.”
For those looking to break into the industry, Darragh offered a few words of advice: “Take the time to learn everything that you can about the industry. Take classes, attend seminars, meet with industry leaders and taste as much olive oil as possible to hone your palate. After twenty years in the industry, I learn something new every day. As Einstein said, ‘I have no special talent, I am only passionately curious.”