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Georgia olive oil pro­ducer Jason Shaw

Shortly before the House of Representatives voted against the 2013 Farm Bill, an amend­ment to remove a sec­tion that would impose olive oil import con­trols was pro­posed by Congressmen Chris Gibson and Michael Grimm of New York. Rep. Grimm said that the Farm Bill pro­vi­sion was “an attempt to allow 2 per­cent of the domes­tic olive oil mar­ket to impose a hid­den tax on the remain­ing 98 per­cent — rais­ing the cost of olive oil for con­sumers.” The amend­ment passed by a huge mar­gin (343–81‑1). Ultimately, the vote was a moot point because the entire Farm Bill went down; how­ever, the bat­tle over the import con­trol pro­vi­sion drew atten­tion to a greatly divided olive oil indus­try.

Opponents of the amend­ment were dis­ap­pointed by its approval. Jason Shaw, pres­i­dent of the Georgia Olive Growers Association said they worked hard to get the import con­trol lan­guage put in the bill in the first place. In a mes­sage to the Georgia U.S. Legislators ask­ing them to oppose the amend­ment, the Association noted that “olive oil importers have per­mit­ted ram­pant olive oil fraud” by mis­la­bel­ing infe­rior blends of oil as higher qual­ity. “All we were try­ing to do was to sub­ject every­one to the same stan­dards that we want to sub­ject our­selves to,” Shaw said.

Shaw believes that there was a lot of mis­in­for­ma­tion about the impli­ca­tions of the bill. He said that the bill would not have approved a sam­pling and test­ing pro­gram for olive oil — a mar­ket­ing order would still have to be devel­oped by the olive oil indus­try before the pro­vi­sion became effec­tive.

A Congressional Budget Office (CBO) report issued in May, indi­cated that if a mar­ket­ing order for olive oil were approved, imports would have to be tested to ensure that they meet stan­dards and that the cost could total “tens of mil­lions of dol­lars annu­ally.” Shaw coun­ters that the indus­try would be respon­si­ble for set­ting its own stan­dards and would not be inter­ested in cre­at­ing ones that were cost-pro­hib­i­tive. He cites the CBO report as a fac­tor in the amend­ment being passed. The report “didn’t help the cause. The cards were stacked against us,” said Shaw.

Patty Darragh, exec­u­tive direc­tor of the California Olive Oil Council also expressed frus­tra­tion over the amend­ment because it impacts efforts to build a com­pet­i­tive domes­tic indus­try com­mit­ted to pro­duc­ing qual­ity oils and that “is not good news for con­sumers and retail­ers.”

Proponents of the Gibson-Grimm amend­ment included such groups as the National Restaurant Association, the North American Olive Oil Association and the American Hellenic Institute (AHI).

“The mar­ket­ing order would have been a trade bar­rier. It would have raised the price of olive oil for con­sumers, and it would have been harm­ful to small busi­nesses,” said Nick Larigakis, pres­i­dent of the AHI, a non­profit Greek American pub­lic pol­icy group. “We were also cer­tainly con­cerned about the ram­i­fi­ca­tions … on future trade nego­ti­a­tions between the United States and the European Union. We believe it would have dis­rupted those nego­ti­a­tions.”

The Georgia Olive Growers Association dis­agreed that import con­trol would cre­ate a trade bar­rier, cit­ing that the European Union already has import inspec­tions for olive oil and for all fruits, veg­eta­bles and nuts. Any U.S. pro­ce­dures added would have to be in com­pli­ance with world trade orga­ni­za­tion rules.

The North American Olive Oil Association (NAOOA) sup­ported the amend­ment because a mar­ket­ing order would be expen­sive and yet would not solve the olive oil qual­ity prob­lem, said exec­u­tive vice pres­i­dent Eryn Balch. “There would be no over­sight of the oils past the point of import — blend­ing and mis­la­bel­ing could occur after inspec­tions,” added Balch.

The Georgia Olive Growers Association, how­ever, con­tends that olive oil con­sumed by Americans should be tested at the point of export. Any fraud occur­ring within the U.S. would be con­trolled by a domes­tic mar­ket­ing order.

As an alter­na­tive to a mar­ket­ing order, the NAOOA is seek­ing sup­port from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for set­ting a national “Standard of Identity” for olive oil, sim­i­lar to stan­dards set for white choco­late and other com­modi­ties. An FDA stan­dard would define olive oil grades and, unlike the USDA grad­ing stan­dards which are vol­un­tary, FDA stan­dards are manda­tory and can be enforced.

Although indus­try folks agree that ensur­ing olive oil qual­ity is crit­i­cal, they do not see eye-to-eye on how best to achieve that goal. They do, how­ever, agree that work­ing to improve con­sumer edu­ca­tion is a high pri­or­ity. The NAOOA said that it would like to see a research and pro­mo­tion order be issued by the USDA because it would allow the indus­try to use USDA resources and infra­struc­ture toward con­sumer edu­ca­tion.

While the Farm Bill dust set­tles, Jason Shaw said “We will keep doing what we’re doing — edu­cat­ing the pub­lic and pro­duc­ing the best prod­uct that we can.”


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