The California Department of Food and Agriculture (CDFA) is fac­ing a big work­load. At a pub­lic hear­ing on July 15 in Sacramento, California, 49 wit­nesses tes­ti­fied on pro­posed olive oil grad­ing and label­ing stan­dards, and many oth­ers sub­mit­ted writ­ten com­ments. The CDFA must now sift through and ana­lyze it all and make an offi­cial deci­sion on rec­om­men­da­tions pro­posed by the new Olive Oil Commission of California (OOCC). Had the pub­lic com­ments been heav­ily weighted in favor or in oppo­si­tion to the stan­dards, CDFA’s job would be easy, but there were strong opin­ions on both sides of the fence.

Earlier this year, the OOCC was cre­ated to enhance the com­pet­i­tive­ness of California’s olive oil indus­try and improve con­sumer con­fi­dence in olive oil qual­ity. Commission board mem­bers, elected from pro­duc­ers and han­dlers from across the state’s olive grow­ing regions, recently sub­mit­ted their grad­ing and label­ing rec­om­men­da­tions to the CDFA. CDFA’s review process includes a pub­lic writ­ten com­ment period and a pub­lic hear­ing before the Agriculture Secretary will issue a final deci­sion on whether the rec­om­men­da­tions will become manda­tory.

Kimberly Houlding, exec­u­tive direc­tor of the American Olive Oil Producers Association com­mended the OOCC’s work. “The Commission did a very thor­ough job in mak­ing sure the stan­dards are sci­en­tif­i­cally sound and make sense for California pro­duc­ers.”

Proponents of the pro­posed stan­dards point to other California agri­cul­tural com­modi­ties that have ben­e­fited from enforce­able stan­dards. Jamie Johansson of the California Farm Bureau Federation noted that stan­dards exist for 31 state com­modi­ties and they “improve cus­tomer sat­is­fac­tion by ensur­ing only high qual­ity prod­ucts are mar­keted.”

Michael Kiey of Ramos & Kley Ranches believes that the stan­dards will give con­sumers con­fi­dence in their pur­chases. “These are assur­ances that as a grower I am will­ing to pay for through my assess­ment dol­lars and [are] nec­es­sary for California to retain its rep­u­ta­tion for pro­duc­ing high qual­ity olive oil,” noted Kley in his writ­ten sub­mis­sion.

The pro­posed stan­dards devi­ate in some areas from the International Olive Council and USDA stan­dards. Supporters see the dif­fer­ences as strengths of the pro­posal. Dr. Rodney Mailer of the Australian Oils Research Laboratory indi­cated that European stan­dards, includ­ing those set­ting fatty acid and sterol lim­its, were based on Mediterranean con­di­tions and do not con­sider regional and vari­etal dif­fer­ences. The European stan­dards dis­crim­i­nate against oil pro­duced in other areas, such as the U.S., Australia, South Africa and South America, said Mailer.

Without labelling stan­dards, prod­uct grade stan­dards and prod­uct test­ing, the ruse will con­tinue.- Dick Neilsen, McEvoy Ranch

Bruce Golino, chair of the OOCC Standards Committee explained that under exist­ing stan­dards, some high qual­ity California olive oils would not pass the purity test. “One of the first deci­sions we made was that no olive oil should be excluded because of its nat­ural chem­istry… we also under­stood the inher­ent illogic and unfair­ness of telling a grower who, for instance, hap­pened to grow Koroneiki olives in Petaluma CA that the oil that came from those olives made in accor­dance with the stan­dard was not olive oil. Yet, that is exactly what adopt­ing a tra­di­tional stan­dard would mean for California pro­duc­ers.”

Dan Flynn, exec­u­tive direc­tor of the UC Davis Olive Center claims that importer con­cerns over changes in the fatty acid and sterol pro­files are a “red her­ring.” Importers assume that exist­ing IOC stan­dards have ade­quately guarded against fraud, “which is clearly not the case.” Flynn also pointed out a new con­sumer pro­tec­tion mea­sure in the pro­posed stan­dard requir­ing trace­abil­ity of the oil through its var­i­ous pro­cess­ing stages.

Proposed label­ing stan­dards would pro­hibit the use of terms such as “Pure” and “Extra Light” because they mis­lead con­sumers. According to Dick Neilsen, gen­eral man­ager of McEvoy Ranch and a mem­ber of the OOCC, “Olive oils labeled “Pure”, a pow­er­ful word to American con­sumers, are refined, stripped of fla­vor and nutri­ents. Other labels read “Lite” and “Extra Lite”, imply few calo­ries. Olive oils mis­la­beled “Extra Virgin” are found in almost all U.S. super­mar­kets, stores and shops. The fact is that these labels are inten­tion­ally mis­lead­ing to the con­sumers and with­out labelling stan­dards, prod­uct grade stan­dards and prod­uct test­ing, the ruse will con­tinue.”

The stan­dards also set new grad­ing def­i­n­i­tions and rec­om­mend not using the words “olive oil” when refer­ring to refined-olive oil blends or olive pomace oil. “Consumers and the trade need to under­stand the impor­tant qual­ity dif­fer­ence between extra virgin/​virgin olive oils, ‘the oils as they come from the olive,’ com­pared with the lower grade refined and pomace oils, ‘indus­trial man­u­fac­tured olive oils’. The pro­posed California olive indus­try stan­dard does this bet­ter than any of its many pre­de­ces­sors,” tes­ti­fied Paul Miller, pres­i­dent of the Australian Olive Association.

Opponents of the rec­om­mended grade and label­ing stan­dards do not believe that the require­ments will achieve their desired objec­tives. The stan­dard has been “slop­pily and hur­riedly patched together” and “it appears that sup­port­ers of the stan­dard intend to favor the only grade com­mer­cially sold by local pro­duc­ers, extra vir­gin olive oil, by attempt­ing to attach neg­a­tive-sound­ing tech­ni­cal ver­biage to lower grades, ” said Eryn Balch, Executive Vice President of the National American Olive Oil Association.

The idea of hav­ing dif­fer­ing sets of stan­dards is viewed by some as con­fus­ing and inef­fi­cient. The International Olive Council’s (IOC) exec­u­tive direc­tor Jean-Louis Barjol wrote that his orga­ni­za­tion admin­is­ters the manda­tory stan­dards for mem­ber coun­tries (the U.S. is not a mem­ber). The mem­ber nations pro­vide 96 per­cent of the world’s olive oil exports. “…intro­duc­ing new grade names, grade def­i­n­i­tions and para­me­ters that dif­fer from those used by 96 per­cent of world exports would cre­ate con­sumer con­fu­sion.”

Written com­ments from Costco, ACME Food Sales, and Food Trading Specialties indi­cated that the pro­posed stan­dards would cause a “sig­nif­i­cant bur­den” on the com­pa­nies who would have to sell the same prod­ucts under dif­fer­ent names or change nam­ing con­ven­tions. “The stan­dards pro­posed by the Commission are incon­sis­tent with well-estab­lished, com­mer­cially-accepted indus­try stan­dards and will cre­ate dis­rup­tion and increase con­fu­sion for both buy­ers and con­sumers.”

Challengers also dis­pute the valid­ity of the sci­ence behind some of the stan­dards. For exam­ple, the rec­om­men­da­tions add new mea­sures of qual­ity, such as test­ing PPP and DAGs lev­els. “…the proven sci­ence sup­port­ing the exist­ing IOC chem­i­cal test stan­dards is much more com­pre­hen­sive in iden­ti­fy­ing adul­ter­ation. Limiting chem­i­cal test­ing to pri­mar­ily PPP and DAGs, will not detect adul­ter­ation and requires more sci­en­tific val­i­da­tion on effec­tive­ness,” wrote John Akeson, CEO of Deoleo USA.

Although any stan­dards adopted by the state would only apply to grow­ers and han­dlers in California (who pro­duce or han­dle more than 5,000 gal­lons per year), some see the poten­tial for the stan­dards to spread to domes­tic pro­duc­ers and importers. Eryn Balch, exec­u­tive vice pres­i­dent of the North American Olive Oil Association (NAOOA), drew atten­tion to recent lob­by­ing efforts and press reports that indi­cate that advo­cates of the pro­posed stan­dard will ulti­mately want the new rules to apply to all olive oils sold domes­ti­cally. “The NAOOA does not see any pro­duc­tive results that would come from imple­ment­ing the pro­posed stan­dard, but can eas­ily fore­see the intru­sive, bur­den­some, anti-com­pet­i­tive sit­u­a­tion that would result for the over­whelm­ing major­ity of olive oil sup­pli­ers, not just in California but across the U.S.,” Balch stated.

Mauro Battocchi from the European Union Delegation to the U.S. echoed the NAOOA’s con­cerns from an importer per­spec­tive. “While the pro­posed stan­dards will only apply to California pro­duc­ers and han­dlers over a cer­tain amount of pro­duc­tion, the EU remains deeply con­cerned about pos­si­ble impli­ca­tions to trade in the short and long term.”

Patricia Darragh, exec­u­tive direc­tor of the California Olive Oil Council, said that she was per­plexed by oppo­si­tion spec­u­la­tion about how wide­spread the pro­posed stan­dards could become. California accounts for only about three per­cent of U.S. oil con­sump­tion, so it is “bla­tantly untrue” that a goal of the sup­port­ers is to pre­vent imports, said Darragh. “California oil is unique — it is almost exclu­sively a pre­mium prod­uct. The stan­dards are directed solely at California pro­duc­ers.”

The CDFA will accept addi­tional pub­lic com­ments until 4:00 PM (PST) on July 29. The depart­ment antic­i­pates mak­ing a deci­sion on the Commission rec­om­men­da­tions within 45 days after the com­ment period closes. More infor­ma­tion on the CDFA hear­ing and the process can be obtained on the CDFA web­site.


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