Business

Row in Spain Over Tasting Panels Heats Up

Two sides of the Spanish olive oil sector want the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries, Food and Environment to decide the future of tasting panels.

Apr. 12, 2018
By Daniel Dawson

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Members of agri­cul­tural asso­ci­a­tions, olive oil pro­duc­ers and rep­re­sen­ta­tives of the Spanish Association of Municipalities of Olive Oil (AEMO) gath­ered in Jaén — the heart of Spanish olive coun­try — for the sign­ing of a man­i­festo sup­port­ing and defend­ing tast­ing panels.

It is very easy to speak from the pro­duc­tion sector because they do not market the olive oils and there­fore do not assume any risk with the panel test.- Rafael Pico Lapuente, ASOLIVA

Francisco Reyes, the head of the Jaén’s provin­cial gov­ern­ment, signed the doc­u­ment, which is ulti­mately des­tined for the desk of Isabel García Tejerina, the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries, Food and Environment.

“We have had to respond to the demand of an impor­tant part of the olive oil pro­duc­tion sector… in defense of the tast­ing panel.” Reyes said. “From the Provincial Council, we believe it is a fun­da­men­tal instru­ment to con­tinue bet­ter­ing and defend­ing the qual­ity of olive oils.”

The man­i­festo has enjoyed wide­spread sup­port through­out the world’s largest olive oil pro­duc­ing coun­try but has also received push­back from exporters and trade asso­ci­a­tions. These two groups warn that in an increas­ingly ana­lyt­i­cal and data-driven world, legal inse­cu­ri­ties sur­round­ing tast­ing panels abound.

Among the orga­ni­za­tions rais­ing con­cerns about these legal inse­cu­ri­ties are the National Association of Industrial Packers and Edible Oil Refiners (ANIERAC) and the Spanish Association of the Olive Oil Exporting Industry and Commerce (ASOLIVA). They argue that dis­crep­an­cies between tast­ing panels from dif­fer­ent coun­tries harm the exporters’ prof­itabil­ity as well as the rep­u­ta­tion of Spanish olive oil pro­duc­ers abroad.

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The sen­sory analy­sis method applied to virgin olive oils is an indis­pens­able tool for the clas­si­fi­ca­tion of olive oils, which allows us to dif­fer­en­ti­ate between cat­e­gories, above phys­i­cal-chem­i­cal analy­sis.- Supporters of a man­i­festo to pro­tect panel tests

An audit con­ducted by PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC), one of the four largest audit­ing firms in the world, and com­mis­sioned by ANIERAC and ASOLIVA, found a 30-per­cent vari­abil­ity in the qual­i­fi­ca­tions of extra virgin olive oils when tested by dif­fer­ent tast­ing panels.

Another test con­ducted by PwC found that the same tast­ing panel tested the same sample of olive oil twice with dif­fer­ent results. The sample was graded as virgin olive oil after the first tast­ing. When it was pre­sented for the second time, it was graded as extra virgin olive oil.

“When the same sample of oil is sent at dif­fer­ent times to the same or a dif­fer­ent offi­cial panel or pri­vate lab­o­ra­tory there are changes in opin­ion which some­times results in two dif­fer­ent clas­si­fi­ca­tions for the same sample of oil,” the PwCs report said. “In some cases, the second sample sent received a better result than the first sample.”

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The PwC report cited a dis­par­ity of sen­so­r­ial cri­te­ria when tast­ing olive oils and an absence of uni­form method­ol­ogy as the major causes of these dis­par­i­ties. The audit­ing firm rec­om­mended elim­i­nat­ing tast­ing panels alto­gether and replac­ing them with chem­i­cal tests.

“As a result of the above [report], it is evi­dent that the organolep­tic tests cur­rently estab­lished within the area of virgin and extra virgin olive oil rep­re­sent an inap­pro­pri­ate qual­ity con­trol mech­a­nism that vio­lates the most ele­men­tal prin­ci­ples of the Spanish legal system, and gravely harms the public and the olive oil indus­try, fre­quently gen­er­at­ing legal uncer­tainty and inse­cu­rity which, ulti­mately, dis­credit the sector and cause seri­ous finan­cial harm to the indus­try,” the firm starkly warned.

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Paul Vossen: Olive Oil Taste Panels Are Not The Problem

A few weeks ago four large olive oil pro­duc­ers in Spain wrote a letter to the Spanish gov­ern­ment attempt­ing to dis­credit the sen­sory method­ol­ogy for olive oil eval­u­a­tion. They feel it is too sub­jec­tive and should be dis­con­tin­ued as part of the stan­dard.

Even ANIERAC and ASOLIVA, who sup­ported the PwC audit, found this con­clu­sion to be a bit dra­con­ian.

“Just to tell you, the Spanish indus­try is not against the panel tests, it is against its cur­rent appli­ca­tion and the con­se­quences that arise for com­pa­nies and for the extra virgin cat­e­gory from these tests,” Rafael Pico Lapuente, the direc­tor of ASOLIVA, said.

“The oil’s qual­ity is always being ques­tioned and pro­duc­ers are accused of fraud, when we con­sider that there is no such fraud.”

Drafters and sup­port­ers of the man­i­festo vehe­mently dis­agree with the tech­no­cratic view of olive oil clas­si­fi­ca­tion held by PwC. They point out the method­olo­gies of tast­ing panels were estab­lished by the International Olive Council (IOC) and enshrined within com­ple­men­tary European Union reg­u­la­tions.

“The sen­sory analy­sis method applied to virgin olive oils is an indis­pens­able tool for the clas­si­fi­ca­tion of olive oils, which allows us to dif­fer­en­ti­ate between cat­e­gories, above phys­i­cal-chem­i­cal analy­sis,” its advo­cates wrote in the man­i­festo.

“This method has been in con­tin­u­ous evo­lu­tion since its incep­tion, and is still sus­cep­ti­ble to improve­ments like any other… We do not share the prob­lem of legal inse­cu­rity, for lack of con­sis­tent, objec­tive and demon­stra­ble argu­ments, and we ask the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries, Food and Environment to con­tinue the appli­ca­tion of this method.”

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Pico Lapuente said olive oil pro­duc­ers are miss­ing the larger eco­nomic pic­ture in this argu­ment. He argues that exporters’ prof­itabil­ity in inter­na­tional mar­kets neces­si­tates the need for global olive oil qual­ity stan­dards. He believes that pro­duc­ers dou­bling down on the man­i­festo, which fails to present any evi­dence for their case, will not sway the Ministry.

“It is very easy to speak from the pro­duc­tion sector because they do not market the olive oils and there­fore do not assume any risk with the panel test,” he said. “On the other hand, we present evi­dence of legal inse­cu­rity, through the afore­men­tioned reports, but the pro­duc­ing sector does not present any evi­dence to sup­port its opin­ion and only make value judg­ments.”

However, Pico Lapuente sees the meet­ing of the IOC Advisory Committee later this month as a way to ease the ten­sions and come up with a solu­tion that pro­tects exporters and val­i­dates pro­duc­ers.

The com­mit­tee has already come up with six pro­pos­als to help parse the divide between these two camps, includ­ing the har­mo­niza­tion of tast­ing panels and allow­ing IOC accred­ited lab­o­ra­tory judg­ments of olive oil qual­ity to remain unchal­lenged for 12 months.

Rather than pick sides, the com­mit­tee believes ancient tra­di­tions and modern tech­nol­ogy can be hap­pily mar­ried as they already are in so many Spanish olive groves and mills.

“The work­ing group rec­og­nizes the impor­tance of the organolep­tic assess­ment method for the char­ac­ter­i­za­tion and clas­si­fi­ca­tion of virgin olive oils,” the com­mit­tee said.

“The IOC and its member coun­tries should step up their efforts and pursue research to iden­tify meth­ods of chem­i­cal analy­sis that offer pro­fes­sion­als improved legal cer­tainty and can be used to sup­ple­ment organolep­tic assess­ment.”