`'Artisanal' Olive Oil Producers Meet in Rome to Talk Strategy - Olive Oil Times

'Artisanal' Olive Oil Producers Meet in Rome to Talk Strategy

Mar. 28, 2011
Lucy Vivante

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AIFO, the Italian Association of Olive Oil Millers, held an all-day work­shop on March 23rd at Rome’s San Sebastiano al Palatino. The charm­ing Palatine Hill church com­plex feels as if it’s in the remote coun­try­side, but is, in fact, close to the super­high­way-like street that con­nects the Colosseum to Piazza Venezia. The group, made up of olive oil pro­duc­ers with small to medium sized busi­nesses, gath­ered to dis­cuss how to posi­tion high qual­ity extra vir­gin olive oil in a world where low cost is most valued. 

Olives in Puglia are being ripped out to make room for pho­to­voltaic farms. This makes me shud­der- Piero Gonnelli

The group heard from mem­bers, speak­ers from the aca­d­e­mic world, gov­ern­ment agency rep­re­sen­ta­tives, and con­sul­tants. Everyone seemed to agree that dif­fer­en­ti­a­tion from mass-mar­ket brands was key, and that it would take a long time and a lot of hard work for high qual­ity olive oil to gar­ner the price it deserves. There was also a spir­ited dis­cus­sion of how the byprod­ucts of olive oil extrac­tion should be treated.

Piero Gonnelli, pres­i­dent and found­ing mem­ber of AIFO, in order to high­light the con­se­quences of low prices on the sec­tor said, Today, olives in Puglia are being ripped out to make room for pho­to­voltaic farms. This makes me shud­der. In Tuscany 50 to 60 per­cent of the olive groves have been aban­doned.” Gonnelli, who was pro­filed by the Olive Oil Times, grows olives and pro­duces and bot­tles oil in Tuscany. The last fig­ure is par­tic­u­larly pre­oc­cu­py­ing since Tuscan olive oil car­ries a pre­mium over oils from other regions.

Italian shop­pers buy a liter of olive oil, on aver­age, every ten to fif­teen days. Consumers are buy­ing enough oil but, accord­ing to AIFO mem­bers, it lacks qual­ity. Mauro Loy, a mar­ket­ing expert and for­mer super­mar­ket chain exec­u­tive, reported that some 85% of extra vir­gin olive oil is pur­chased at super­mar­ket chains. Selection is largely guided by what’s on sale. AIFO mem­bers want con­sumers to have the choice between their ele­vated qual­ity oils and the stan­dard extra-vir­gin olive oil of the big brand pack­agers. (Italian con­sumers already have the choice of two types of milk, stan­dard and high qual­ity.) AIFO mem­bers are not only look­ing at Italian con­sumers, but are study­ing ways of reach­ing expand­ing mar­kets, such as the US, the Far East, and Russia.

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Giampaolo Sodano, vice pres­i­dent of AIFO, whose pro­file appeared in the Olive Oil Times and who chaired the event, explained that the sem­i­nar leads up to the annual meet­ing in May where doc­u­ments will be assem­bled in order to lobby the European Parliament in Brussels. AIFO is par­tic­u­larly inter­ested in receiv­ing recog­ni­tion of the pro­fes­sion Mastro Oleario or Master Oil Producer. In the same vein, some mem­bers, such as Gonnelli, believe the word and con­cept arti­sanal best describes what they are doing and it should be used to con­nect with con­sumers. Gonnelli noted that con­sumers are already famil­iar with the arti­sanal beer and arti­sanal pasta.

Professor Maurizio Servili of Perugia’s uni­ver­sity, made the point that dif­fer­en­ti­a­tion and the con­cept of Italian high qual­ity was essen­tial since too lib­eral inter­na­tional stan­dards were being under­cut by even more watered down stan­dards intro­duced by indi­vid­ual coun­tries. Professor Servili said, Argentina is now a mem­ber of COI (International Olive Council), all the same, Argentina has made itself a nice lit­tle stan­dard, allow­ing for extra vir­gin olive oil to have a linolenic acid of 1.5 per­cent instead of the inter­na­tional limit of 1 per­cent. They’ve set them­selves stan­dards which allow for campes­terol which can be at 4.5 per­cent instead of the inter­na­tional limit of 4 per­cent.” Servili fol­lowed this by say­ing that the new stan­dards opened the door for adul­ter­ation with saf­flower oil, and that Australia had cre­ated stan­dards sim­i­lar to Argentina’s. According to him, it will devolve into a free-for-all.

Various speak­ers dis­cussed what defines High Quality Italian”. Some, but not all, DOP and IGP would be con­sid­ered for the cat­e­gory. A num­ber of speak­ers voiced the opin­ion that there were geo­graph­i­cally indi­cated oils that were not suf­fi­ciently good for the cat­e­gory. Objective chem­i­cal analy­sis will be crit­i­cal in vet­ting the oils. Sodano said that con­sumers should be pre­sented with clear labels that should give a pre­cise (min­i­mum allow­able) num­ber of polyphe­nols.” This was con­sid­ered impor­tant in regard to health since high qual­ity oil is richer in health improv­ing prop­er­ties than a stan­dard extra vir­gin olive oil.

Professor Massimo Pizzichini gave an inter­est­ing pre­sen­ta­tion on his projects and patents involv­ing the cap­ture of polyphe­nols from the waste cre­ated dur­ing olive oil extrac­tion. He spoke of polyphe­nols and their role in the life of olive trees, which include being a preser­v­a­tive, and also pro­tect the tree and fruit from the olive fly and harm­ful bac­te­ria. At the pro­fes­sor’s entre­pre­neur­ial com­pany PhenoFarm, pomace and veg­e­ta­tion water, which con­tain 98 per­cent of the polyphe­nols avail­able from olive oil extrac­tion, are iso­lated through the use of mem­branes. He fore­sees strong demand for polyphe­nols from food, phar­ma­ceu­ti­cal and cos­metic com­pa­nies, and chided olive oil pro­duc­ers for not buy­ing into his projects. His anger was met with a hush, gasps, and ner­vous laugh­ter and kept every­one alert well into the afternoon.

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