Legislation Restricting Use of 'California' on Olive Oil Labels Gains Momentum

While AB-535 has gained some prominent supporters and breezed through committees, its detractors remain confident a compromise can still be reached.
May. 4, 2021
Daniel Dawson

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Assembly Bill 535, which would pro­hibit the use of the word California’ on any olive oil label not made from 100-per­cent California-grown olives, con­tin­ues to make its way through the state leg­is­la­ture.

See Also: The very Italian prob­lem at California Olive Ranch

The bill has already passed through two com­mit­tees with over­whelm­ing bipar­ti­san majori­ties and is now on the full floor. As the mea­sure steadily makes its way through the leg­isla­tive process, which is likely to include amend­ments and com­pro­mises, it has also picked up some promi­nent and vocal sup­port­ers.

California Olive Ranch’s Destination Series (now called Global Blend) is a threat to California agri­cul­ture and olive oil pro­duc­tion specif­i­cally because it is under­cut­ting hon­est pro­duc­ers.- Tom Mueller, author, Extra Virginity

The Community Alliance with Family Farmers, Family Winemakers of California, Olive Oil Commission of California (OOCC), Solano County Farm Bureau and Yocha Dehe Wintun Nation have all voiced their sup­port for the mea­sure.

Tom Mueller, the author of the New York Times best­seller, Extra Virginity, has also tac­itly sup­ported the bill, say­ing that truth in label­ing leg­is­la­tion will pro­tect pro­duc­ers and con­sumers.

California farm­work­ers, oil pro­duc­ers and con­sumers would all be well-served by strong new leg­is­la­tion that pro­tects truly Californian-pro­duced prod­ucts, includ­ing olive oil, but also ensures that con­sumers are get­ting pre­cisely what they see on the label,” he said in an inter­view with the California Coalition for Truth in Olive Oil Labeling (CCTOOL).

CCTOOL was formed last October to lobby in favor of AB-535, which would also apply sim­i­lar restric­tions for olive oils pro­duced in cer­tain regions of the state unless 85 per­cent of the olive oil (by weight) had been pro­duced in the named region.

During a hear­ing of the legislature’s health com­mit­tee, Cecilia Aguiar-Curry, the bill’s author, argued that the new leg­is­la­tion would strengthen exist­ing laws about using the word California’ on olive oil labels. However, this bill is going one step fur­ther by expand­ing the pro­hi­bi­tion on the word to cover brand and com­pany names as well.

California Olive Ranch (COR), which, among other offer­ings, pro­duces a blend of California and imported extra vir­gin olive oils, would be the largest brand to be affected. Others, how­ever, includ­ing Williams-Sonoma and Napa Valley Naturals, both of which source olives out­side of their name­sake regions, would also be impacted.

See Also: California Trade Group Rescinds Membership Agreement After Backlash

Michael Fox, the CEO of California Olive Ranch, agreed that mis­la­beled olive oil is one of the biggest prob­lems fac­ing pro­duc­ers in the state. However, he dis­agreed that COR’s brand name was caus­ing the prob­lem.

Our trade­mark is truth­ful,” he told Olive Oil Times. Our oper­a­tions are in California. Our ranches are in California. Our com­pany has been called COR for 20 years.”

Fox argued that many sup­port­ers of the bill, specif­i­cally CCTOOL mem­bers, are less inter­ested in pro­tect­ing the name California and more inter­ested in remov­ing the word from cer­tain prod­ucts embla­zoned with the company’s trade­mark.

CCTOOL mem­bers have always denied this claim and repeat­edly said they want to pro­tect how California is used on labels.

What COR does inter­nally with their brand­ing and how it affects their sales isn’t our con­cern or our busi­ness,” Samantha Dorsey, a mem­ber of CCTOOL and pres­i­dent of McEvoy Ranch, told Olive Oil Times. I under­stand that there will be impli­ca­tions to their busi­ness, but that’s not my con­cern as pres­i­dent of McEvoy Ranch.”

“[After 30 years,] we’re on the cusp of real­iz­ing this pre­mium for California extra vir­gin olive oil and it’s really painful to go to the gro­cery store and see olive oil that’s mas­querad­ing as California olive oil,” she added. After all of the work that we’ve done, it’s very dis­ap­point­ing and it’s hard to con­vince con­sumers to pay $30 (€25) for a bot­tle of olive oil.”

However, in his inter­view with CCTOOL, Mueller did not hold back on his crit­i­cism of the COR.

California Olive Ranch’s Destination Series [now called Global Blend] is a threat to California agri­cul­ture and olive oil pro­duc­tion specif­i­cally because it is under­cut­ting hon­est pro­duc­ers,” he said.

They built an impor­tant brand and have led peo­ple to asso­ciate COR with olive oil grown, milled, stored and sold in California and that is sim­ply not the case with the Destination Series,” Mueller added. Frankly, it should not have California on the bot­tle if it is not made in California.”

Fox dis­agrees with Mueller’s assess­ment, point­ing to mar­ket research from Marketure Growth Consultants that showed 90 per­cent of con­sumers could accu­rately dif­fer­en­ti­ate the company’s Global Blend from their 100-per­cent California extra vir­gin olive oil.

We have pro­posed amend­ments that will keep cur­rent laws in place but add new guardrails around blended prod­ucts that are inspired by the strict label­ing laws put forth by other coun­tries,- Michael Fox, CEO, California Olive Ranch

The same research firm found that only 80 per­cent of con­sumers could do the same with California and Australian extra vir­gin olive oils pro­duced by COR’s rival, Cobram Estate.

We agree that truth-in-label­ing leg­is­la­tion pro­tects con­sumers, farm­ers, and pro­duc­ers. But the exist­ing California state law (HSC 112895) is already pro­tect­ing these stake­hold­ers effec­tively,” Fox said. This cri­sis that CCTOOL is attempt­ing to por­tray is a false one. The sup­port­ers of this leg­is­la­tion have failed to pro­vide one piece of data that shows con­sumers, farm­ers and pro­duc­ers are at risk by cur­rent label­ing prac­tices by COR or oth­ers.”

In a writ­ten state­ment to the leg­is­la­ture, the OOCC said that there has been a rise of inac­cu­rately labeled and mis­la­beled extra vir­gin olive oil in the state, specif­i­cally regard­ing the prove­nance of the oils. The OOCC asserted that this has caused con­sumer con­fu­sion and led to a depres­sion in prices.

No one from the OOCC, which is a California state-sanc­tioned entity, responded to requests for com­ment on this arti­cle.

However, pro­po­nents of AB-535, includ­ing Mueller, argue that the bill is nec­es­sary and will bring the olive oil sec­tor in line with the wine sec­tor.

I think California wine has shown the way for­ward for this kind of leg­is­la­tion and olive oil needs to fol­low in wine’s foot­steps and ensure that California labels mean that 100-per­cent of the olives were grown in California,” he said.

In 2000, the California state leg­is­la­ture passed a law pro­hibit­ing the use of pro­tected wine appel­la­tions on labels, in which less than 75 per­cent of the grapes were grown in the region.

Bronco Wine, the pro­ducer of the Napa Ridge brand, which sourced most of its grapes from north­ern California and not from Napa County, sued the state for infring­ing on its copy­right and the case even­tu­ally went to the state’s supreme court.

In 2005, the California Supreme Court upheld the law restrict­ing the use of the word Napa’ on bot­tles of wine pro­duced from grapes grown out­side of the region, despite the name being used in a trade­mark.

Supporters of AB-535 see this leg­is­la­tion as a prece­dent for what they are try­ing to do. However, Fox argues that the par­al­lel is flawed, point­ing out that the 21st Amendment gives states the right to reg­u­late all mat­ters related to alco­hol while food is fed­er­ally reg­u­lated.

California’s wine laws are less restric­tive than what AB-535 seeks to imple­ment,” Fox said. They do not restrict the use of the term California’ in a brand name, they only restrict the use of rec­og­nized appel­la­tion names like Napa’ and Sonoma.’ They also include a carve-out for truth­ful names.”

AB-535 heads for the full floor of the leg­is­la­ture this week for a third read­ing and even­tu­ally a vote. Alan Hilburg, the founder of CCTOOL, told Olive Oil Times that he expects the bill to pass and move to the sen­ate.

For his part, Fox expects the bill to undergo sig­nif­i­cant changes in the sen­ate, shift­ing the focus away from pro­hib­i­tive lan­guage toward more clear label­ing stan­dards for all olive oils sold in California.

He added that he also has been dis­cussing the issue with Aguiar-Curry and was encour­aged by their con­ver­sa­tions. However, he admit­ted the two were still far from find­ing com­mon ground.

We have pro­posed amend­ments that will keep cur­rent laws in place but add new guardrails around blended prod­ucts that are inspired by the strict label­ing laws put forth by other coun­tries,” he said. Our pro­pos­als take this leg­is­la­tion fur­ther to assure blended prod­ucts com­mu­ni­cate to con­sumers that a prod­uct is a global blend.”

For her part, Aguiar-Curry con­tin­ues to say that she will fight to pro­tect the high-qual­ity of Californian agri­cul­tural prod­ucts and her intent with this bill is to do just that.

California has the best agri­cul­tural prod­ucts and the high­est envi­ron­men­tal and labor stan­dards in the world,” she said. Consumers look for California-grown foods because they asso­ciate California with qual­ity.”

Allowing com­pa­nies to trick con­sumers into think­ing they’re buy­ing a California prod­uct because they slap California’ on their pack­age under­cuts every­thing we’re try­ing to accom­plish as a state,” she added. This bill will ensure that con­sumers know exactly what they are buy­ing, and it will help to sup­port our local farm­ers who are pro­duc­ing world-class oils from olives grown here in our state.”





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