`Importers and California Producers Begin a Dialogue in Davis

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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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