`Divergent Views on Proposed California Olive Oil Standards

N. America

Divergent Views on Proposed California Olive Oil Standards

Jul. 22, 2014
Nancy Flagg

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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.

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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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