` California Senators Hear Industry's Call for a 'Level Playing Field'

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California Senators Hear Industry's Call for a 'Level Playing Field'

Jan. 28, 2012
By Curtis Cord

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Sen­a­tor Lois Wolk (left), Adam Engle­hardt, Paul Miller, Bob Bauer, Dan Flynn

A new Cal­i­for­nia State Sen­ate Sub­com­mit­tee on Olive oil and Emerg­ing Prod­ucts held an infor­ma­tional hear­ing Thurs­day before a packed room and an audi­ence of hun­dreds who watched live via a web­cast.

The ses­sion was chaired by State Sen­a­tor Lois Wolk (D‑Davis), who recently attended the olive oil qual­ity sem­i­nar at the Culi­nary Insti­tute of Amer­i­ca’s Napa Val­ley cam­pus, and another indus­try meet­ing in Dixon, Cal­i­for­nia on a pro­posed mar­ket­ing order.

The law­mak­ers heard tes­ti­mony from UC Davis Olive Cen­ter Direc­tor Dan Flynn, author Tom Mueller, Cali­ifor­nia Olive Ranch Vice Pres­i­dent Adam Engle­hardt, Mike Bradley of Veron­ica Foods, Aus­tralian Olive Asso­ci­a­tion’s Paul Miller, North Amer­i­can Olive Oil Asso­ci­a­tion Pres­i­dent Bob Bauer and oth­ers.

The pro­ces­sion of speak­ers pre­sented accounts of the chal­lenges faced by the state’s olive oil pro­duc­ers who con­front, they said, unfair com­pe­ti­tion from unscrupu­lous Euro­pean pro­duc­ers and importers who don’t play by the rules.

It began with Fly­n­n’s recount of last April’s widely pub­li­cized report that found nearly three-quar­ters of imported olive oil in Cal­i­for­nia super­mar­kets to be mis­la­beled. Next, Tom Mueller gave a deftly worded account of the olive oil under­world that has been caus­ing quite a stir along his whis­tle-stop tour to pro­mote his new book, Extra Vir­gin­ity.

Lis­ten to remarks by Tom Mueller:

Adam Engle­hardt, a fifth-gen­er­a­tion farmer who man­ages the orchards for the state’s largest olive oil pro­ducer spoke about the promise and suit­abil­ity of the olive crop for the state. Straight­for­ward and con­vinc­ing, Engle­hardt said, What stands in the way of expan­sion (of olive cul­ti­va­tion in Cal­i­for­nia) is a level play­ing field.”

Mike Bradley gave a dra­matic pre­sen­ta­tion of olive oil con­tain­ers he found on store shelves car­ry­ing labels that exhib­ited aston­ish­ing, and ille­gal, mis­in­for­ma­tion that prompted audi­ble gasps and looks of dis­be­lief from sen­a­tors and onlook­ers.


At one point Sen­a­tor Berry­hill said, This is the most inter­est­ing infor­ma­tional meet­ing I have ever been to.” And there was lit­tle doubt that an agri­cul­tural sub­com­mit­tee for a state only begin­ning to make olive oil would not often hear the drama and deceit described by the speak­ers before them and with which this indus­try has been rife for cen­turies.

There was also lit­tle doubt they planned to do some­thing about it. Sen­a­tor Berry­hill (R‑Stanislaus) com­pared the olive sec­tor to the state’s grape indus­try and said, What we’re doing here today is start­ing the process of try­ing to come up with some­thing that makes sense for every­body,” and there were signs that an indus­try mar­ket­ing order would likely be among the first steps taken.

It was­n’t as easy an audi­ence for the NAOOA’s Bob Bauer, whose orga­ni­za­tion rep­re­sents some of the importers impli­cated by oth­ers in the room. This was clearly an away game for Bauer, and one might have expected a cau­tious we also want to force out the bad guys” approach (he did recount a time when he saw an ille­gal label in a super­mar­ket and duti­fully called the pro­ducer directly, right from the store).

But then pre­dictably Bauer turned to main­tain that the new test­ing meth­ods employed by Fly­n­n’s lab and oth­ers to iden­tify bad olive oil, known as the PPP and DAG tests, were rejected by the world experts on olive oil.” He called taste tests, where cer­ti­fied pan­els of expert tasters declare a sam­ple free of defects or not, unsuit­able for the clas­si­fi­ca­tion of olive oil” since they are, he said, sub­ject to bias.” And Bauer warned that an indus­try mar­ket­ing order would be costly and detri­men­tal to pub­lic health,” since it would make olive oil less afford­able for con­sumers.”

The hear­ing was a remark­able exhi­bi­tion of the bat­tle lines being drawn by a young domes­tic indus­try seek­ing to estab­lish rules and demol­ish the long-held advan­tages enjoyed by inter­na­tional traders of low qual­ity olive oils.

Part 1 of the 2‑hour hear­ing can be viewed here, and part 2, here.

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