`Leonardo Colavita and the UC Davis Olive Oil Report - Olive Oil Times

Leonardo Colavita and the UC Davis Olive Oil Report

Sep. 29, 2010
Lucy Vivante

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With sus­pi­cion — that’s the way the olive oil world here in Italy is view­ing the recent and con­tro­ver­sial University of California, Davis Olive Center report. The study, per­formed in con­junc­tion with the Australian Oils Research Laboratory, exam­ined mass-mar­ket and store brand extra vir­gin olive oils, and those of California pro­duc­ers. Most Italian and imported olive oils failed sen­sory and chem­i­cal tests, while nearly all California sam­ples passed. The study is seen as a way of mak­ing a mar­ket for California olive oil, and pro­tec­tion­ist in spirit. That the research was financed by the California Olive Oil Council and two of the stud­ied California brands, is seen as par­tic­u­larly telling.

The Italian press has had lit­tle cov­er­age of the study. Il Salvagente, a con­sumer weekly, and Teatro Naturale, an online pub­li­ca­tion focus­ing on oil and wine, each ran a piece on the UC Study and dis­cussed the valid­ity of the tests, and both opined that the lop­sided study favored California-pro­duced extra vir­gin olive oil. For this piece, Colavita, Filippo Berio, Bertolli and Carapelli were all con­tacted for their views of the UC Davis study. Bertolli and Carapelli, his­tor­i­cally Italian com­pa­nies, are now owned by Grupo SOS, a Spanish com­pany. By press time, only Colavita agreed to answer our ques­tions regard­ing the study.

Enrico Colavita, who heads up the Colavita export office and oper­a­tions in Campobasso, said via phone they had thought of releas­ing a state­ment on the UC Study, but decided against it since it could pro­duce even more con­fu­sion.” Asked about the gen­eral idea of test­ing extra vir­gin olive oil, he told Olive Oil Times that he wel­comed test­ing, Yes, we are in favor of test­ing, test­ing where the stan­dards are agreed upon inter­na­tion­ally, and also the method­ol­ogy.” After a brief con­ver­sa­tion and a cou­ple of days, the writer was invited to the company’s Pomezia plant, in order to dis­cuss the UC Davis Study and to view their facil­ity. It is here that they pack­age their extra vir­gin olive oil. The com­pany is 24 kilo­me­ters (15 miles) from Rome, on the Via Laurentina, a south­ward lead­ing ancient Roman road. Pomezia is largely indus­trial.


Andrea, Enrico, and Leonardo Colavita

Enrico Colavita, President and Leonardo Colavita, General Manager, are broth­ers and joint heads of the fam­ily firm. For gen­er­a­tions, the Colavitas pro­duced olive oil in Molise’s Campobasso province. Leonardo says of their town, Sant’ Elia Pianisi has 2,000 inhab­i­tants, and at least 30% have Colavita as their last name.” Their father went into the pack­ag­ing of olive oil, dis­tinct from grow­ing and press­ing olives. Leonardo’s son Giovanni is President of Colavita USA, and lives in New York; Leonardo’s daugh­ter Carla works in a role which sounds like Chief Financial Officer and is now in New York for four months but is gen­er­ally in Italy. Enrico’s son Andrea is Director of Sales; and his other son, Paolo, attends uni­ver­sity in Rome, and will join the com­pany after grad­u­a­tion. The com­pany employs 60 peo­ple in Italy, and 70 in the US, what seem like very small num­bers for such a high pro­file com­pany. Colavita’s main prod­uct is extra vir­gin olive oil, which is sold in close to 70 coun­tries, with 80% of their rev­enues com­ing from export. They don’t dis­cuss sales in cur­rency, pre­fer­ring to say that their aim is to sell 15 mil­lion liters a year. Last year, 2009, they didn’t reach that fig­ure, but this year has made up for last.

The Colavita Center for Italian Food and Wine at The Culinary Institute of America, in Hyde Park, NY, as well as their spon­sor­ship of ath­letes, mostly women, helps keep their pro­file high. Both Leonardo and Enrico are involved with asso­ci­a­tions to fur­ther, and raise the pro­file of the Italian food indus­try. The Colavitas are mem­bers of Confindustria, an inter­est group rep­re­sent­ing the man­u­fac­tur­ing and ser­vice sec­tors. Federalimentare is Confindustria’s sub­group for the food indus­try and the group with which they work. Leonardo is a founder of The Association of the Italian Oil Industry–ASSITOL. He’s just come off four con­sec­u­tive two-year terms as its pres­i­dent, the max­i­mum by statute. Next year, after a year elapses, he says he’ll go back to being pres­i­dent.


In the UC Davis study, Colavita extra vir­gin olive oil was tested, result­ing in one bot­tle pass­ing, and two fail­ing. After the pub­li­ca­tion of the study in July, Colavita ana­lysts tested bot­tles from the same lots tested by UC Davis. Colavita is a test-happy com­pany and keeps three sam­ples from each lot it pro­duces. Leonardo says that the sam­ple room, dubbed the sac­risty,” is the most beau­ti­ful and impor­tant room in the whole com­pany. The room is filled, floor to ceil­ing, with metal shelv­ing, and sam­ples for each lot are arranged by date. Leonardo says of the room People like to talk about trace­abil­ity, but this is the real trace­abil­ity.” He also said that the police tasked to inspect the food indus­try are amazed by the room when they come for inspec­tions. One police­man said to Leonardo, Finally! Someone who works the way God wants us to work.”

They keep the sam­ples to test how their prod­ucts are far­ing with the pas­sage of time, in case of a dis­pute, a recall, a Tylenol event,” or some­thing like the UC Davis study. After 30 months in the sac­risty, sam­ples are emp­tied into lam­pante oil bins. The com­pany uses Julian dat­ing (year, a num­ber between 1 and 365 for the days in the year, and time), a com­mon prac­tice, to cre­ate lot num­bers, and lots in the sam­ple room are grouped by month of pack­ag­ing.

They tested all of the lots used in the Davis study and found all to be extra vir­gin olive oil. One of the stud­ied lots, the bot­tle pur­chased in Los Angeles, was one of the old­est, if not the very old­est sam­ple tested by UC Davis. The Los Angeles bot­tle did not have a best before end” date, but it had the lot num­ber L0816208042 (Lot, year 2008, 162nd day of the year, and 8:42 in the morn­ing) which means it was bot­tled June 11, 2008 — 21 months before it was tested by the Davis study. The oil in the 2008 bot­tle showed signs of age, but still passed their inter­nal test. Colavita does not dis­count the pos­si­bil­ity that the LA bot­tle was improp­erly stored, result­ing in its fail­ure. Since the begin­ning of 2010, the com­pany has intro­duced a best before end” date on US bot­tles. Retailers had been reluc­tant to include the date. The case car­tons them­selves always car­ried the best before” date.

The 2008 oil was in a clear bot­tle. In addi­tion to the pas­sage of time, ele­vated tem­per­a­tures and light degrade extra vir­gin olive oil. Harsh super­mar­ket lights often beam day and night. Bottling in dark glass helps pre­serve oil, and on this point Enrico Colavita said, Even if con­sumers want to see the color of the olive oil, we are mov­ing to all dark bot­tles.” Another bot­tle failed the UC Davis sen­sory and chem­i­cal tests. Because Colavita’s own tests were inter­nal, Severino Spoladore, a qual­ity con­trol ana­lyst, said they couldn’t be con­sid­ered sci­en­tific, as they would be from an inde­pen­dent lab. Still, their inter­nal tests help their peace of mind.

Colavita pack­ages Rachael Ray All-Italian Extra Virgin Olive Oil. The UC Davis study also tested that olive oil, result­ing in one pass­ing and two fail­ing. The Rachael Ray olive oils, like the Colavita brand, failed the UC Davis sen­sory and chem­i­cal tests. When Enrico Colavita said about the gen­eral idea of test­ing, Yes, we are in favor of test­ing, test­ing where the stan­dards are agreed upon inter­na­tion­ally, and also the method­ol­ogy.” he was shar­ing a view that the study was flawed, while express­ing sup­port for the International Olive Council state­ment on the study, which said as much.

The Pomezia plant, beyond pack­ag­ing Colavita and Rachael Ray olive oils, pack­ages Santa Sabina, a pop­u­lar Lazio brand that the Colavitas bought, and Molivo, a brand they cre­ated. The oils range in grades and prove­nance. The DOP oils they buy from mak­ers in Molise, Puglia, Sicily, Tuscany, and Umbria, and are kept here before ship­ment to clients. The Campobasso plant instead pro­duces fla­vored oils and the company’s line of veg­eta­bles packed in olive oil. The Linden, NJ plant pack­ages Colavita Canola-Olive Blended Oil, pop­u­lar with US con­sumers.

Renzo Casagrande is the Factory Manager at the Pomezia plant. He had his start at Heineken work­ing on beer; worked for many years at Unilever, first in oil seeds, mar­garine, and may­on­naise; and then in Unilever’s olive oil divi­sion, help­ing that com­pany in their goal of becom­ing a world leader in olive oil. (Around 2008 Unilever switched course and exited the olive oil mar­ket entirely.) When Unilever, in 1998, sold the Pomezia plant to the Colavitas, Casagrande stayed on. It’s pretty clear that the Colavitas, and the employ­ees I meet, have a great deal of respect for this man. He is respon­si­ble for the Colavita taste, blend­ing extra vir­gin olive oils to meet the expec­ta­tions of Colavita cus­tomers. He is mild-man­nered and seri­ous.

On the day of my visit, Casagrande patiently showed me around the fac­tory. I asked him about the UC Davis test, and although always poised, he showed some exas­per­a­tion. Casagrande says, When we mea­sure a road or mea­sure a piece of cloth, we need to all use the same met­rics. The California study used mea­sures that are not uni­ver­sally accepted. About the 1,2‑diacylglycerol and pyropheo­phytins mea­sured by UC Davis, Casagrande said, These para­me­ters were tested by Europe, and Italy in par­tic­u­lar, for more than ten years. After hav­ing tested them, the European Community decided that the tests were not reli­able.” Similarly, the International Olive Council rejected the meth­ods, and some see it as disin­gen­u­ous for the UC Davis Study authors to sug­gest using these tests to an orga­ni­za­tion they know has already rejected them. They might have said that the Council should recon­sider their deter­mi­na­tion, but they did not.

Casagrande elab­o­rated, say­ing that the tests gave con­tra­dic­tory results (false pos­i­tive or neg­a­tive) and that weather at har­vest time, expo­sure to heat and light, aging, and type of cul­ti­var threw the tests off. The 1,2‑diacylglycerol (DAG in the study) and pyropheo­phytins (PPP in the study) tests were orig­i­nally known as meth­ods to screen for olive oil adul­ter­ated with deodor­ized and refined oils.

Casagrande finds a lot wrong with the study. The fact that the California and Australian labs didn’t per­form the exact same tests, but dif­fer­ent tests, is one of his con­cerns. Another is that a sec­ond panel did not repeat the sen­sory test — some­thing that is uni­ver­sally done if a sam­ple fails. I asked him if he was sure they did not, and he said, For each lot sam­pled, Australia received just one bot­tle of the three bought in each store. This means that the Australian lab car­ried out all the chem­i­cal analy­sis and sen­sory eval­u­a­tion on the same avail­able bot­tle.”

This is why sen­sory eval­u­a­tion could­n’t be repeated. Moreover, they did­n’t clar­ify this aspect.” On the list is the small sam­ple size, the vary­ing ages of the oil, and the fact that the study was paid for by inter­ested par­ties. Casagrande also said,

On top of that, the sam­pling mode is very impor­tant for proper bench­marks to ensure that all prod­ucts have had the same stor­age con­di­tions in ware­houses and on the shelf (light, tem­per­a­ture, the rota­tion speed of the prod­uct on the shelf). Unlike the imported prod­ucts pur­chased in dif­fer­ent chains, the five California oils were all pur­chased in the same chain.”

When Casagrande speaks of the chains, he is refer­ring to the fact that the California oils were exclu­sively pur­chased at Whole Foods shops, while the imported brands were pur­chased at Bel Air, Costco, Nob Hill, Ralphs, Safeway, and Walmart stores.

He says that this kind of test can be done inter­nally (Colavita often tests the olive oils of other com­pa­nies), but should never be pub­lished since it doesn’t use uni­ver­sally rec­og­nized tests and is so far from being rig­or­ously sci­en­tific.

Leonardo Colavita and I had a brief dis­cus­sion about adul­ter­ation and the 2007 New Yorker arti­cle by Tom Mueller enti­tled Slippery Business,” Colavita said, We’re posi­tioned in the medium to the high level of the mar­ket, maybe more high than medium. We’ve worked hard to make a name for our­selves. What do they think? That we’re out to ruin our name, our brand for a lit­tle trick worth quat­tro soldi (mean­ing four bits or a few bucks). It sig­ni­fies that they think we’re totally stu­pid, I mean you have to be stu­pid to destroy a brand you’ve worked a life­time to cre­ate for quat­tro soldi.”

Renzo Casagrande works closely with Leonardo Colavita on the pur­chase of the extra vir­gin olive oil for the brand. Patrizia Pallotto and Severino Spoladore, qual­ity con­trol ana­lysts, sup­port their work. The vast major­ity of their olive oil comes from Puglia, the region that pro­duces nearly half of Italy’s olive oil. According to Casagrande, Puglia is the region that deliv­ers the best qual­ity for price.” Lesser quan­ti­ties come from Molise, Calabria and Sicily. Their Colavita Extra Virgin Olive Oil is made solely from Italian oils.

The com­pany works with four bro­kers who col­lect sam­ples from approved fran­toios. Pallotto and Spoladore visit the fran­toios to see how they are run. CERMET, an Italian asso­ci­a­tion devoted to best prac­tices and qual­ity con­trol, vis­its 10 to 15 Colavita sup­plier fran­toios each year, for cer­ti­fi­ca­tion. In Italy, Colavita bot­tles and tins carry labels with the CERMET cer­ti­fi­ca­tion.

The com­pany pur­chases oil from about 50 fran­toios, many of which are long-stand­ing sup­pli­ers. Each fran­toio owner must sign a let­ter of com­mit­ment before work­ing with Colavita. Brokers go around to the approved fran­toios to col­lect olive oil sam­ples, which are then sent to Pomezia. I ask them why they don’t buy directly from the fran­toios, and Pallotto and Spoladori responded that it would be too time-con­sum­ing, and would mean that Signor Leonardo would have to run all over Puglia. Once they receive the sam­ples, Casagrande and Leonardo Colavita taste the olive oils, never look­ing at each other, so that their facial expres­sions won’t influ­ence each other.

I asked Leonardo Colavita about Casagrande’s keen sen­sory abil­i­ties and he said, The Direttore doesn’t drink, doesn’t smoke, and doesn’t drink cof­fee.” Pallotto and Spoladore per­form lab tests on the olive oil, judg­ing its purity and qual­ity and whether it fits the Colavita pro­file. If the oil is deemed to have the right taste and the price is right, or near right, the bro­ker is called, and a deal is made. Pallotto said, If you have a good olive oiland a good price, you have to move fast, oth­er­wise some­body else might buy the oil from under you.” After they agree to pur­chase the oil, the bro­ker sends match­ing paper­work, with deliv­ery date and time to Colavita and to the fran­toio.

For the deliv­ery, the bro­ker goes to the fran­toio, makes sure the right olive oil is being loaded into the tanker truck and seals the tanker. Once the tanker arrives at the Colavita plant, the paper­work is checked to see that it matches, the seal on the tanker is bro­ken, and a sam­ple is taken into the lab to com­pare it to the oil that had been sam­pled ear­lier. This test lasts about half an hour. If every­thing is okay, and it is in the vast major­ity of cases, the olive oil is trans­ferred from the truck to one of their many tanks. Another test is per­formed dur­ing the trans­fer, Spaladore explains, A spigot on the hose is opened slightly, and a small amount of oil drips down into a con­tainer, giv­ing a sam­ple of the entire con­tents of the tanker. This is done because a trick of 20 years ago was for trucks to have two cham­bers, one with the good olive oil, and another one with lesser oil.” With all of these tests, I ask myself if I’d want to be a ven­dor to these peo­ple. It seems like a lot of test­ing to undergo. On the plus side, the ana­lysts and the Colavitas are friendly – they don’t have the pinched faces of sus­pi­cious peo­ple. And, they don’t keep ven­dors wait­ing for pay­ment. Leonardo says their sup­pli­ers like work­ing with them because they pay part on the day after deliv­ery and the bal­ance at 30 days. Each tanker holds 30 tons and has a value of 70,000 euros.

The olive oil is sub­jected to another more thor­ough exam­i­na­tion, this one last­ing four to five hours. The infor­ma­tion from the tests is impor­tant to deter­mine which tank the oil should be put in, and impor­tant to Casagrande for his work in for­mu­lat­ing a blend. The num­ber of oils blended depends partly on the time of year. In January, when the tanks are full, olive oils from as many as 8 tanks could be blended. In September, a blend might have olive oil from just two tanks. The com­pany has 11 tanks with 300-ton capac­ity; 6 with 500-ton capac­ity; and 6 tanks with a 60-ton capac­ity. All the tanks are made of stain­less steel.

This is how Casagrande describes the chal­lenge of pro­duc­ing what Colavita cus­tomers want and expect:

For my house, I choose olive oils that are fruity (frut­tato). But this is a prob­lem. Consumers love the idea of gen­uine­ness, love the idea of good taste, but they don’t want an olive oil that will dis­turb them, olive oil with piquancy. Tasting the piquancy, the con­sumer says to him­self, There’s some­thing not right here.’ Instead, it’s the piquancy which makes the oil good. We have to decide whether we want to be edu­ca­tors, mis­sion­ar­ies, or pro­duc­ers. It’s a big dilemma. In the end, we reach a com­pro­mise. The nat­ural antiox­i­dants, the polyphe­nols and toco­pherols dis­turb the palate, they are a bit aggres­sive, but they are what guar­an­tee con­ser­va­tion or shelf life. We pro­duce olive oil that is between what the con­sumer expects and what we want.”

I asked Casagrande if there are dif­fer­ent tastes for dif­fer­ent mar­kets and he said, We have Colavita, as such, Extra Virgin Olive Oil, which has the same pro­file every­where: Italy, USA, Canada, Taiwan. And then we have Fruttato, which is a fruity taste. And there we have more of a piquant aspect. So, if you ana­lyze it, you’ll see that there are more polyphe­nols than in the stan­dard. It is an oil for olive oil enthu­si­asts.” For every bot­tle of Fruttato, they sell twenty of the stan­dard.

Casagrande based on the oils in stock, comes up with a the­o­ret­i­cal recipe for a blend. He then gives it to a fac­tory oper­a­tor, who places the oils in the right pro­por­tion into a blend­ing tank, which is agi­tated. The oil is then ana­lyzed and tested for taste. If it’s good, and has the Colavita taste, they pro­duce a lot of it. Casagrande and I walked around the fac­tory to see the immense tanks and the place where the oil is fil­tered. The com­pany could buy the olive oil already fil­tered from the fran­toios, but Casagrande says, We think we’re bet­ter at fil­ter­ing. We want to do the fil­ter­ing our­selves.” Four to five hun­dred tons of olive oil is pack­aged in a week, and they work one or two shift days. There is one line work­ing today. In December, all five lines could be work­ing at once. Since the fac­tory is so auto­mated, there aren’t many peo­ple around. We saw ster­il­ized bot­tles removed from pack­ag­ing, bot­tles puffed with air, enclosed cham­bers where bot­tles are being filled, a con­veyor belt where bot­tles are sealed, capped, and labeled. Everything moves very fast. There are many, many pal­lets with 150 car­tons each, all shrink-wrapped. Casagrande says it takes about 15 days for their con­tain­ers to reach the US. For Europe, the oil is trans­ported by truck.

Five con­tain­ers were loaded before I arrived at the Pomezia plant. Leonardo Colavita, when he showed me the sam­ple room, also showed the med­ical room. A doc­tor comes twice a month, and employ­ees must visit the doc­tor at least once a month. The doc­tor decides which per­son­nel can lift car­tons into the con­tain­ers and which ones shouldn’t. I asked Leonardo about what seemed to me this abun­dance of cau­tion, test­ing every­thing and every­body. I asked him if he got it from his father. He says, No, what I got from my father was the impor­tance of clean­li­ness.” He asked me if I noticed that his fac­tory smelled good. I hadn’t noticed any smell. This is the first pack­ag­ing fac­tory I’ve vis­ited, so I didn’t have any­thing to com­pare it to. He tells me that a lot of olive oil pack­ag­ing fac­to­ries smell bad. He then goes into detail about how, if any oil spills on the floor, the line stops, and the spill is cleaned with alco­hol. He also told me that his olive oil is the only Italian brand he knows of which is kosher. Rabbis visit unan­nounced, to inspect the plant for clean­li­ness, and to make sure employ­ees aren’t eat­ing close to the work­space etc. He seems pleased to have the encir­cled U on his labels, the mark of kosher prod­ucts. The kosher cer­ti­fi­ca­tion is impor­tant in the US, where Colavita sells more than 40% of its oil.

Andrea Colavita is the head of sales. When I first see him, I ask myself if this young man could really be the head of sales. A few moments into the con­ver­sa­tion all doubts dis­si­pate. He’s easy to talk to — prob­a­bly essen­tial in sales — and speaks English very well.

Andrea says of their mar­kets After the US, the largest are Italy, Australia, Japan, Brazil, and Canada.” Of the US mar­ket, he says. We’re every­where, with the strongest mar­kets on the east and west coasts, and in the Chicago area.” He thinks the American con­sumer is well versed in olive oil. He said that peo­ple in Italy just want it — peo­ple go through a bot­tle a week and cost is a big dri­ver.

I asked Andrea his thoughts on the UC Study, and he said, I saw it. I read it. It didn’t sur­prise me, to be hon­est. Because in the last three years we had the same thing, exactly the same thing, hap­pen­ing in Germany.

They made research, a German buyer went to the store to pick all the sam­ples. And, of course, the Italian brands were all vir­gin, that means not good because they were old. The result was that the pri­vate label, the German pri­vate label was very good. And before that, we had the same in France.” He sees a cer­tain nation­al­ism in the stud­ies.

Enrico Colavita spends most of his time in Campobasso, run­ning the Colavita export office. All the Colavitas travel fre­quently between the two loca­tions. Enrico Colavita is an ele­gant Italian busi­ness­man, cen­tral cast­ing per­fect. In a con­ver­sa­tion on what he terms the recent fac­tious­ness,” he said, You’re telling me that your olive oil’s good and mine is dis­gust­ing. That helps nei­ther the sec­tor nor the con­sumer.” He believes there are good oils from many places. For next year they’re plan­ning to sell a Colavita Selection, a pack with half-liter bot­tles of extra vir­gin olive oil from Argentina, Australia, and California, the new pro­duc­ers; and from Spain, Greece, and Italy. It would be sim­i­lar to their sell­ing of packs of Italian DOP oils.

I asked Leonardo if they get offers to sell the com­pany. Oh yes. And the last time was a very nice offer. The last offer, for Colavita Italia and Colavita USA, was some­thing like 60 mil­lion ($82 mil­lion). A nice sum. A nice sum. I would have sold. I say that the train only passes once in life. You have to know how to take the oppor­tu­nity when it comes. My brother and I called the chil­dren together and said Kids, we have the pos­si­bil­ity of sell­ing the com­pany, putting a cool 30 mil­lion each away, and live in a dif­fer­ent way than we’re liv­ing now. And the chil­dren replied, Yes. We sell. We take the money. What do we do with it? And, what work will we do? We can’t just keep it in the bank. This is what we know how to do.’ And so, we said, If you like the bicy­cle, every­body pedal.’ And, it was even pos­i­tive, pos­i­tive see­ing that they all want to work.”


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