`Importers and California Producers Begin a Dialogue in Davis - Olive Oil Times

Importers and California Producers Begin a Dialogue in Davis

Jan. 24, 2014
Curtis Cord

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Aerial view of the Robert Mondavi Institute for Wine and Food Science at the University of California at Davis

When UC Davis Olive Center direc­tor Dan Flynn met International Olive Council direc­tor Jean-Louis Barjol at an event in Chile last October, they came up with the idea to orga­nize a meet­ing of American olive oil indus­try stake­hold­ers coin­cid­ing with the Winter Fancy Food Show.

It was an unlikely gath­er­ing. Representatives from California olive oil pro­duc­ers met with major olive oil importers for three and a half hours on the University of California at Davis cam­pus last week to dis­cuss the com­mon chal­lenges fac­ing the indus­try and find ways to coop­er­ate.

Four years ago, it was Flynn’s team of researchers, funded by local pro­duc­ers, who pub­lished the bomb­shell report that found most imported oils sold on the shelves of California super­mar­kets to be sub­stan­dard. That unleashed sim­i­lar inves­ti­ga­tions around the world, sparked a debate on olive oil qual­ity, gave rise to a flurry of neg­a­tive mar­ket­ing cam­paigns and likely turned some con­sumers off to olive oil alto­gether. Barjol con­demned the report’s under­cur­rent of aggres­sion” at the time.

Flynn mod­er­ated the Davis meet­ing, attended by rep­re­sen­ta­tives of some of the com­pa­nies impli­cated in his report — Pompeian, Borges, Colavita, Sovena and Deoleo — and the largest American pro­duc­ers who used the 2010 study as a cen­ter­piece in their efforts to lobby for stricter qual­ity stan­dards, enforce­ment and import restric­tions.

To pre­vent a free-for-all, accord­ing to sev­eral atten­dees, some ground rules were set for the January 16 meet­ing: There would be no dwelling on the issues the sides rou­tinely dis­agree on. Instead, the focus would be on com­mon areas of con­cern and find­ing ways to work together, espe­cially to increase con­sump­tion in the world’s biggest mar­ket.

The meet­ing marked the begin­ning of a dia­logue that IOC direc­tor Barjol has been advo­cat­ing since he began his tenure at the inter­gov­ern­men­tal agency in 2010, and now needs more than ever. And he report­edly came to Davis deter­mined to get the sides to agree to a list of items that together served to bring the U.S. into the IOC fold, if only in small, sym­bolic incre­ments.

The coun­cil is doing some soul-search­ing as it drafts a new gov­ern­ing agree­ment, or char­ter, to take effect on January 1, 2015. Barjol has made U.S. mem­ber­ship in the IOC a pri­or­ity of his admin­is­tra­tion, even while the U.S. gov­ern­ment has offered lit­tle hope. In fact, accord­ing to the International Trade Commission report, the U.S. would like to curb mem­ber­ship in such groups.”

Perhaps suc­cumb­ing to that real­ity, Barjol man­aged to get the group of Davis atten­dees, that was stacked on the side of importers, to agree to rec­om­mend an entity to be an observer” at the Council. However, as one attendee noted, once the U.S. joins the ranks of observers, the IOC might choose in its new bylaws to amend the sta­tus of observers in order to fur­ther an agenda with tacit sup­port from American pro­duc­ers.

But a pri­or­ity on every list in the Davis meet­ing was to lift the pal­try American olive oil con­sump­tion, and recent data show­ing U.S. imports slip­ping only served to enhance an over­all sense of urgency felt by all sides.

In inter­views, peo­ple who attended the meet­ing spoke in mea­sured tones and scripted remarks about set­ting aside dif­fer­ences, find­ing com­mon ground and begin­ning an open dia­logue that was long over­due.

The atten­dees of the meet­ing were: Jean-Louis Barjol (International Olive Council), Richard Cantrill (American Oil Chemists’ Society), Eryn Balch (NAOOA), Bob Bauer (NAOOA), Patti Andrade (Borges), Giovanni Colavita (Colavita), Jaime Carbo (Deoleo), Frank Patton (Pompeian), Steve Mandia (Sovena), Patty Darragh (COOC), Bruce Golino (COOC), Kimberly Houlding (AOOPA), Brady Whitlow (Corto Olive), Adam Englehardt (California Olive Ranch), Mike Forbes (California Olive Ranch), Dan Flynn (UC Davis) and Selena Wang (UC Davis).

All together, the room rep­re­sented nearly 100 per­cent of the olive oil Americans con­sume, and even a sig­nif­i­cant por­tion of global olive oil pro­duc­tion. Deoleo, Sovena and Borges are among the world’s largest pro­duc­ers of olive oil who likely pro­duce more in an hour than the United States pro­duces all year.

According to a sum­mary of the meet­ing, that there were no plans to release pub­licly, the group dab­bled in a few of the major points of con­tention that have kept them on their respec­tive coasts until now, such as stan­dards and enforce­ment, and they were con­tent to agree to dis­agree:

There was dis­cus­sion related to the lack of fraud enforce­ment as well as issues related to the cost and mode of enforce­ment,” accord­ing to the notes, but no spe­cific con­sen­sus emerged.”

Likewise, There was dis­cus­sion related to involv­ing the FDA in US olive oil stan­dards and to the peri­odic updat­ing of US stan­dards but no spe­cific con­sen­sus emerged.”

There was agree­ment for U.S. insti­tu­tions” (pre­sum­ably the UC Davis Olive Center and AOCS) to par­tic­i­pate in European research projects, and all sides agreed to explore par­tic­i­pat­ing in a USDA mar­ket­ing pro­gram.

There was lit­tle indi­ca­tion that the meet­ing rep­re­sented a softer posi­tion by domes­tic pro­duc­ers led by California Olive Ranch who financed the 2010 Davis exposé, pushed for a $2 mil­lion inves­ti­ga­tion into olive oil indus­try by the United States International Trade Commission, drafted (and denied) a domes­tic mar­ket­ing order and lob­bied for a failed attempt to include a pro­vi­sion in the Farm Bill that would have sub­jected imported olive oils to higher stan­dards if a mar­ket­ing order were some day adopted.

For their part, the importers and sup­pli­ers of most of the 300,000 tons of olive oil con­sumed here each year gave no sig­nals, accord­ing to meet­ing atten­dees, that the dis­mal qual­ity of olive oil in the mass mar­ket was about to change any time soon, and there was a col­lec­tive shrug in response to con­cerns over sub­si­dies that allow European farms to flood the mar­ket at prices below pro­duc­tion costs.

One attendee char­ac­ter­ized the divide between the sides who met in Davis as no less than an ide­o­log­i­cal gulf.” But for a few hours last week, there was at least a strain of opti­mism and the pos­si­bil­ity that some day the wide­spread fraud, neg­a­tive cam­paign­ing and mount­ing con­sumer con­fu­sion about olive oil might be replaced by sim­pli­fied mes­sages of health ben­e­fits, taste char­ac­ter­is­tics and culi­nary uses.

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