I have been reporting over the last year and a half on the debate raging in Greece on how to implement the EU 432/2012 labeling regulation. Despite the many attempts by scientists, olive growers, olive mills and even members of the Greek Parliament to convince the Hellenic Food Safety Agency (EFET) to allow the measurement of tyrosol derivatives the agency has so far refused.
Now, it has now been revealed that EFET’s refusal to include the measurement of tyrosol derivatives in order to qualify for the corresponding health claim on the label is not based on any scientific evidence. Their decision is based on a very narrow and strictly grammatical interpretation of the word tyrosol in the Greek translation of the EU 432/2012 regulation:
“The (health) claim may be used only for olive oil which contains at least 5 mg of hydroxytyrosol and its derivatives (e.g. oleuropein complex and tyrosol) per 20gm of olive oil. In order to bear the claim information shall be given to the consumer that the beneficial effect is obtained with a daily intake of 20 g of olive oil.”
Last month this topic was brought to the Greek Parliament for the third time by Giorgos Kasapidis who asked the new Minister of Food and Agricultural Development, Vangelis Apostolou, to specify what scientific evidence EFET relied on for their decision to exclude the measurement of tyrosol derivatives. Kasapidis also asked by which method were phenolic compounds to be measured and by which lab.
The minister replied on May 15, and made a commitment to answer the question and name an official method and lab to measure the phenolic compounds before the next harvest season begins.
Meanwhile, EFET is insisting the wording of the regulation implies that tyrosol derivatives should not be measured. Oleocanthal being a derivative of tyrosol is therefore excluded.
The extent of this absurd argument over semantics was brought to light recently during a roundtable discussion at the Lipid Forum annual conference on June 11 – 12 in Athens.
Four scientists (Prokopios Magiatis, Dimitris Boskou, Maria Tsimidou and Leandros Skaltsounis) came together to try to respond to this issue under pressure from the olive oil industry and the members of the press.
All four of the scientists agreed that tyrosol derivatives should be measured based on the underlying scientific research conducted by María-Isabel Covas and others in order create the health claim in the first place.
The man with the unenviable job of defending the position of EFET is Konstantinos Barberis, chemistry director and food crisis coordinator at EFET. Addressing the roundtable with palpable discomfort, Barberis continued to focus on the wording of the regulation and not the science behind it. “The word tyrosol in the wording of the regulation means that its derivatives should not be measured. If it was spelled tyrosols then its derivatives including oleocanthal would be measured.”
Barberis went on to add: “I am not basing my decision on the scientific evidence.” The audience and the four scientists grew frustrated at his insistence on basing his decision on semantics and not scientific evidence. Barberis, who has a PhD in Chemistry, should know better than to use semantic arguments to exclude the scientific basis that would allow the most prolific phenolic compounds found in Greek olive oil to be measured in order to comply with EU 432/2012.
Also in the audience was Aris Kefalogianis founder of Gaea Products S.A. and, having a law degree from the London School of Economics, offered his legal expertise on the issue at hand: “When we seek to interpret a law or a regulation we do not look only at the wording of the law but also at the intent of the people who wrote it.”
Barberis seemed genuinely uncomfortable at having to disregard scientific evidence or even a strictly legal basis in favor of a narrow semantic interpretation. He gave a clear impression that he was ordered to do so.
Boskou, Tsimidou and Skaltsounis agreed that tyrosol derivatives should be measured to comply with the health claim, but they disagreed on how to measure them. They affirmed the accuracy of the NMR (Nuclear Magnetic Resonance) but insisted it was too expensive. Tsimidou has developed her own analytical method based on using hydrolysis to free the derivative phenolic compounds back to their original forms, hydroxytyrosol and tyrosol, and then measure them.
There are many products (juice, creams, lotions, pills) fortified with hydroxytyrosol and tyrosol extracted from olive mill waste and this may cause consumer confusion.
Magiatis expressed some reservation of the hydrolysis analytical method: “EVOO contains a unique blend of hydroxytyrosol and tyrosol derivatives such as Oleacein and Oleocanthal with exceptional health-promoting characteristics. If you wish to promote the health benefits of phenolic compounds found in EVOO why measure them as if they originated in olive mill wastewater?”
“Olive mill wastewater does not contain any significant amount of hydroxytyrosol or tyrosol derivatives that are present in EVOO,” Magiatis argued. “There is a danger that hydroxytyrosol and tyrosol or their simple synthetic esters could be added to lower quality olive oil and if the hydrolysis method of analysis was used they could even qualify for the health claim.”
After the meeting I had a chance to talk to Barberis in private and ask him some direct questions: “What if another country, for example Tunisia, decided to measure tyrosol derivatives and places the health claim on their labels, what will EFET do? Will they lodge a complaint to the EU and try to stop them?
“No we would not do that,” he replied.
“Then why are you stopping the Greek olive oil producers who wish to measure tyrosol derivatives?” I asked.
“EFET has not lodged any complaints and will not take action against Greek producers that choose to measure tyrosol derivatives and place the health claim on their labels,” he insisted.
Based on my direct experience I knew this not to be the case. I have spoken to a few producers who wanted to place the health claim on their labels and EFET refused to allow them to do it. “They can put the health claim on their label if they wish and it is up to the other countries to decide if they would accept it,” Barberis insisted.
In other words olive growers are on their own. EFET will not stand by them and will not stop them either. This is a prime example of the type of Kafkaesque like bureaucratic nightmare that is strangling the Greek olive industry.
The president of EFET, Ioannis Tsialtas did not show up to the roundtable discussion and neither did any members of the Ministry of Food and Agricultural Development.
The fact of the matter is tyrosol derivatives are found in Greek EVOO in greater amounts than any other group of phenolic compounds. Magiatis was emphatic about this point having analyzed over 1,500 samples of Greek EVOO over the last two years:
“If you include tyrosol derivatives such as oleocanthal, over 60 percent of Greek EVOOs we have tested so far would qualify for the health claim,” Magiatis explained. “If you exclude tyrosol derivatives less than 15 percent of Greek EVOOs would qualify for the health claim on their label.” Magiatis added that, generally speaking, early harvest EVOO contains more hydroxytyrosol and tyrosol derivatives than late harvest. “So with small adjustments in the time of harvest and milling process we can easily increase the number of EVOOs that qualify to meet demand.”
The question that still remains to be answered by EFET is why they insist on interpreting the wording of the regulation based on grammar and not the underlying science the regulation is based on. The absurdity of this semantic argument, if applied to quality control of EVOO, would mean EFET would not test scientifically any olive oils that are fraudulently sold as EVOOs because the label clearly states they are indeed EVOOs. So we should only assess the EVOO quality based on the wording on the label and not conduct any chemical analysis.
Unfortunately this may actually be the case with EFET. One member of the audience at the lipid forum severely criticized EFET for not following up on consumer and industry complaints regarding the sale of fraudulent and mislabeled EVOOs in Greece. In one case among many it took nine months and numerous complaints before the agnecy ordered the fraudulent olive oil off the shelves. The fact that Greeks consume more than 20 kg of olive oil per year per capita makes this a serious health issue.
The next harvest year is looking very good so far for Spain, but not so good for Greece. If Spain achieves the production they expect, it could result in even lower prices for Greek olive oil when sold in bulk. This is bad news for the Greek olive growers facing a diminished production next season mainly due to weather conditions: too cold, then too hot, and then not enough rain when it was needed the most.
EFET could have accepted the scientific opinions and allowed the health claim on the label over two years ago. It would have helped the struggling Greek olive oil industry to differentiate their product and gain market share, instead of spending all this time arguing over semantics.