` U.S. Launches Coordinated Strikes on E.U. Olive Oil Strongholds from Washington and Sacramento

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U.S. Launches Coordinated Strikes on E.U. Olive Oil Strongholds from Washington and Sacramento

Sep. 25, 2013
By Curtis Cord

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Cal­i­for­nia State Sen­a­tor Lois Wolk and House Ways and Means Com­mit­tee Chair­man Dave Camp

It might not have been the offen­sive many were expect­ing over the past few weeks, though it was care­fully tar­geted.

First, there was the release of a report on a year-long inves­ti­ga­tion by the United States Inter­na­tional Trade Com­mis­sion that some experts say will pro­vide ample grounds for trade actions and for­mal WTO com­plaints against E.U. olive oils imported into the U.S.

And yes­ter­day, Cal­i­for­nia passed a law to cre­ate its own olive oil com­mis­sion to con­duct research, rec­om­mend stan­dards, orga­nize efforts to cap­ture mar­ket share and oth­er­wise wage war on low-qual­ity imports.

The prox­im­ity of the two events might seem coin­ci­den­tal, but they are the results of an orga­nized assault by a group of Amer­i­can pro­duc­ers and stake­hold­ers now known as the Amer­i­can Olive Oil Pro­duc­ers Asso­ci­a­tion (AOOPA), and their Aus­tralian allies.

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Their roots go back to a Dixon, Cal­i­for­nia meet­ing where grow­ers drafted and dis­cussed a domes­tic mar­ket­ing order with the even­tual aim of hold­ing imports to higher stan­dards.

Then, rep­re­sen­ta­tives from Cal­i­for­nia and Geor­gia were suc­cess­ful in lob­by­ing the pow­er­ful House Ways and Means Com­mit­tee to request a USITC inves­ti­ga­tion into the con­di­tions of com­pe­ti­tion” faced by the fledg­ling Amer­i­can olive oil indus­try.

The Decem­ber, 2012 hear­ing at the USITC in Wash­ing­ton was such a pile-on that Com­mis­sioner Shara L. Ara­noff, a Mary­land Demo­c­rat appointed by George W. Bush, said somberly, I’m a bit afraid my chil­dren will find out what I’ve been feed­ing them all these years.”

At the hear­ing, Alexan­der Ott, then exec­u­tive direc­tor of the new AOOPA, spent much of his five-minute allot­ment — and more time dur­ing direct ques­tion­ing — stress­ing the nonex­is­tence of any mar­ket­ing order for olive oil: There is no mar­ket­ing order,” Ott stressed repeat­edly through­out the day, adding the hys­te­ria over a poten­tial fed­eral mar­ket­ing order is some­what humor­ous.” (Ott is no longer with the asso­ci­a­tion)

The mys­ti­cal mar­ket­ing order, how­ever, found a way into the United States Farm Bill. Cal­i­for­nia pro­duc­ers pushed for a pro­vi­sion that would have required imported oils to be sub­ject to restric­tions such as taste test­ing when a mar­ket­ing order for olive oil is estab­lished. The Cal­i­for­nia Olive Oil Coun­cil called the olive oil pro­vi­sion part of a com­mon sense pro­gram requir­ing imports to be held to the same stan­dards as Amer­i­can olive oil.”

At around the same time, Lois Wolk — the Davis, Cal­i­for­nia state sen­a­tor and a Dixon attendee — was hold­ing a hear­ing of her own in Sacra­mento before a packed room and an audi­ence of hun­dreds who watched live via a web­cast. Wolk’s newly-formed State Sen­ate Sub­com­mit­tee on Olive Oil and Emerg­ing Prod­ucts” heard a pro­ces­sion of wit­nesses pre­sent­ing their accounts of the chal­lenges faced by the state’s olive oil pro­duc­ers who con­fronted, they said, unfair com­pe­ti­tion from unscrupu­lous Euro­pean pro­duc­ers and importers who don’t play by the rules.

Wolk went on to gar­ner bipar­ti­san sup­port for the bill signed into law yes­ter­day that sanc­tioned the for­ma­tion of the state com­mis­sion that will use annual assess­ments, col­lected from pro­duc­ers who make over 5,000 gal­lons per year, to enhance the com­pet­i­tive­ness of the indus­try within the state, national, and inter­na­tional mar­ket­place.”

But the big guns are in Wash­ing­ton, and law­mak­ers are expected to not let the esti­mated $2 mil­lion tax­pay­ers spent on the USITC report be wasted. Such reports often result in for­mal com­plaints and trade actions includ­ing higher tar­iffs and import restric­tions.

I don’t think any­one can deny it has been a pretty bad cou­ple of weeks for Amer­i­can importers and their Euro­pean part­ners,” said an olive oil bro­ker who wished not to be named.

Not sur­pris­ingly, the Inter­na­tional Olive Coun­cil has had lit­tle to say about the lat­est offen­sive except to acknowl­edge the impres­sive effort that went into the USITC report, and to argue that some of the infor­ma­tion it con­tained was debat­able, though it didn’t say which.

No one is ques­tion­ing one of the find­ings by the inves­ti­ga­tors: that the United States has no plans to join the Madrid-based IOC, cit­ing gov­ern­ment offi­cials who con­firmed an increas­ingly iso­la­tion­ist pol­icy toward U.S. mem­ber­ship in inter­na­tional com­mod­ity orga­ni­za­tions.”

Like a U.N. Secu­rity Coun­cil par­a­lyzed by a Russ­ian veto, the U.N.-sanctioned Inter­na­tional Olive Coun­cil is seen by Amer­i­can agen­cies as unlikely to fur­ther U.S. inter­ests, with the mere five par­tic­i­pa­tion shares” it would have, com­pared with Europe’s 684.

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The Amer­i­cans will not need to go it alone this time, how­ever. Aus­tralian pro­duc­ers, and their fear­less leader, Paul Miller, have waged a sus­tained cam­paign that has man­aged to push back imports using a new set of qual­ity stan­dards and con­ven­tional PR. Imports into Aus­tralia fell seven per­cent last year. Such a decline in Amer­i­can olive oil imports would amount to 22,000 tons — or almost three times what the U.S. pro­duces — bring­ing a whole new mean­ing to the Land of Oz.”

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