`Cold Press: The Media Pile-On After the Davis Olive Oil Report - Olive Oil Times

Cold Press: The Media Pile-On After the Davis Olive Oil Report

Jul. 28, 2010
Denise Johnson

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Reports of adul­ter­ated olive oil and olive oil fraud are not new in the U.S. where for a long time European olive oil exporters have been tak­ing advan­tage of American naïveté and an absence of qual­ity stan­dards. So why has every­one been talk­ing about a recent UC Davis Olive Center report that found some olive oils bought from California super­mar­kets were not what they claimed to be?

The last time imported olive oil took such a bash­ing was an August 2007 exposé by Tom Mueller in the New Yorker mag­a­zine titled Slippery Business — The Trade in Adulterated Olive Oil. The report detailed a per­va­sive cul­ture of olive oil adul­ter­ation that shocked read­ers and per­ma­nently altered the way a lot of us think about mass-mar­ket olive oil.

The Davis report, posted here two weeks ago, has enjoyed the kind of viral pub­lic­ity only eye-grab­bing titles like That Olive Oil’s No Virgin” could achieve. The report’s con­clu­sion that most imported extra vir­gin olive oils are not extra vir­gin” has proved com­pelling. The story rein­forced cyn­i­cism we’ve long har­bored. Pair that with vir­gin word-play and you have a news edi­tor’s best friend. 500 news edi­tors in fact, judg­ing by a Google News search.

The Report and its after­math:

July 14: Report: Most Imported Extra Virgin Olive Oils Aren’t Extra Virgin
July 15: UC Davis Study Questioned
July 16: Industry Group Responds to UC Davis Olive Oil Report
July 26: Davis Olive Center Chemist, NAOOA’s Bauer on NPR
July 27: IOC Weighs in on Davis Olive Oil Study


Another rea­son the report gar­nered so much atten­tion is the surg­ing pop­u­lar­ity of olive oil, due to the steady stream of health find­ings and celebrity raves in recent years. Thank California for much of the great PR olive oil has had lately. California makes just 1 per­cent of the olive oil we con­sume and, with every head­line like Report Questions Imported Olive Oil’s Virginity,” you can expect that num­ber to rise.

Obviously some aren’t too happy about the way this is headed. First, the North American Olive Oil Association jumped in with a state­ment that sought to calm con­sumers by out­lin­ing how, together with the International Olive Council, hun­dreds of tests are per­formed every year on imported olive oils, and the NAOOA is here to make sure we get what we pay for.

Then the Executive Secretariat of the International Olive Council piled on with a harsher tone in a state­ment that accused the Davis report of bas­ing its find­ings on a sam­pling it called sta­tis­ti­cally not sig­nif­i­cant,” using meth­ods that were found to be unre­li­able” and reach­ing con­clu­sions with­out the usual cross­checks. In short, the IOC said, the report failed to pro­vide evi­dence for its claims. Then, with the IOC watch­ing its back, the NAOOA issued another release with more bravado titled IOC Blasts California Study.”

When asked by the Olive Oil Times about the spe­cific IOC crit­i­cisms includ­ing the small sam­pling and the report’s con­tro­ver­sial method­olo­gies, the UC Davis Olive Center’s Director responded today only with:

UC Davis stands behind the report, which was con­ducted with an IOC-accred­ited lab using offi­cial IOC tests. The Australian Oils Research Laboratory does excel­lent work.

At the same time, UC Davis val­ues the IOC’s role in olive oil stan­dards and tests. We invite the IOC to be a part­ner in our future research to ana­lyze the qual­ity of olive oil sold in the United States.”

Dan Flynn, UC Davis Olive Center

So where is all of this going?

Olive oil decep­tion is real. Even the NAOOA trade group of importers says 10% of oils they test have some kind of prob­lem. That would be about 10 mil­lion liters of rip-offs, one of which might be in your cup­board right now. Olive oil fraud is com­mit­ted on a huge scale by giant pro­duc­ers in Spain, Italy, Greece and Tunisia.

The cul­ture and mech­a­nisms that per­pet­u­ate the prac­tice sim­ply don’t exist in the States where the biggest com­pa­nies, still small by European stan­dards, are focused on pro­duc­tion effi­ciency and the mar­ket’s high end.

There are also pro­duc­ers in these coun­tries and else­where, like many pro­filed in these pages, indeli­bly com­mit­ted to excel­lence and who craft an extra vir­gin olive oil that can be made nowhere else in the world but on their farm. That’s why we write about it. It’s why we love it. Every extra vir­gin olive oil is dif­fer­ent, and there are exquis­ite extra vir­gin olive oils of the high­est order made in Spain, Italy, Greece, Tunisia, California and regions all over the world, thank good­ness. Of course, how much of the good stuff makes it to our local super­mar­kets is a cause for con­stant con­cern, and the sub­ject of this study.

What’s both­er­some about this Davis ini­tia­tive is that it was financed in part by those who have the most to gain by its find­ings. Davis’s close ties to the local olive oil indus­try that pays its bills leaves the study vul­ner­a­ble to crit­i­cism. Still, they could have used even more fund­ing if that would have afforded the test­ing of a rea­son­able sam­pling.

The IOC pledged in its state­ment to work closely with the United States to pro­tect US con­sumers from mis­la­beled olive oil. For its part, the United States will prob­a­bly use what lit­tle money it has scru­ti­niz­ing ship­ping con­tain­ers for things other than adul­ter­ated olive oil.

Still, the recent USDA revi­sion of olive oil stan­dards brings us a lit­tle closer to a day when we can be rea­son­ably sure ALL olive oil we buy here is what it claims to be. Until that hap­pens the rep­u­ta­tion of imported olive oil will likely con­tinue to take shots, some fair and oth­ers not so.

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