Freighter off Valencia, Spain

Ten years ago, a mere 16 per­cent of the 113,000 tons of olive oil imported to the United States was in bulk con­tain­ers. This past year, more than 42 per­cent of the 331,368 tons of imports were in bulk, defined as full con­tain­ers weigh­ing more than 18 kg (39.7 Lbs).

The fig­ures, released today by the International Olive Council (IOC), reflect the ris­ing pop­u­lar­ity of olive oil and an ongo­ing change in the way the world’s largest mar­ket is deal­ing in the com­mod­ity.

Bulk con­tainer imports are des­tined for U.S. bot­tlers of pri­vate label and mass-mar­ket brands, food­ser­vice sup­pli­ers, and even domes­tic pro­duc­ers who sup­ple­ment their lim­ited inven­to­ries with the abun­dant sup­ply from Europe and North Africa, and espe­cially Spain. For exam­ple, Veronica Foods, the California dis­trib­u­tor of hun­dreds of spe­cialty stores around the coun­try imports and ships to its retail­ers in bulk con­tain­ers, and California Olive Ranch, the largest American olive oil pro­ducer has also begun import­ing oils from abroad to com­ple­ment its range of home-grown prod­ucts.

Spain accounted for 62 per­cent of bulk imports last year, while Italy’s share of the surg­ing large con­tainer mar­ket was just 4 per­cent. Tunisian olive oil rep­re­sented 14 per­cent, Morocco pro­duced 7 per­cent and Argentina and Chile sup­plied 5 per­cent and 3 per­cent of the bulk imports respec­tively.

Meanwhile, Italy is not the pow­er­house it once was for smaller con­tain­ers either. Ten years ago, Italy accounted for two-thirds of olive oil imported in bot­tles and tins; today its mar­ket share in the cat­e­gory has slipped to one-third.

Spain, which sup­plied just 9 per­cent of the small con­tainer mar­ket ten years ago now accounts for 25 per­cent, accord­ing to the IOC fig­ures. Other coun­tries creep­ing in on the seg­ment once dom­i­nated by Italy include Tunisia and Greece.

The data sug­gests a dra­matic change in the way olive oil reaches American end users and the suc­cess­ful tran­si­tion by Spain, the world’s largest olive oil pro­ducer, and to a lesser degree Tunisia, from ship­ping their yields to Italy to be blended and repack­aged as Italian olive oil, toward mar­ket­ing their own national brands to for­eign buy­ers.

The trends also reflect a grow­ing com­mit­ment to qual­ity among the lead­ing pro­duc­ing coun­tries and per­haps, at least to some degree, the neg­a­tive pub­lic­ity, deserved and oth­er­wise, that the Italian olive oil indus­try has suf­fered in recent years.

Consumers and food indus­try pro­fes­sional alike are becom­ing increas­ingly aware that olive oil qual­ity tran­scends national bound­aries. Yet with the emer­gence of white-label dis­tri­b­u­tion and pri­vate brands, the onus will increas­ingly fall on domes­tic dis­trib­u­tors and mer­chants to assure the authen­tic­ity of their own branded prod­ucts.


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