Business

Group Says Olive Oil Tasting Panels Create "False Concern"

Jan. 28, 2011
By Sarah Schwager

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By Sarah Schwager
Olive Oil Times Contributor | Reporting from Buenos Aires

A blow-up in Spain over the use of organolep­tic analy­sis in extra virgin olive oil after recent fraud results could be the start of some­thing big, accord­ing to indus­try experts.

In November and December, a number of pack­aged olive oils were found to be fraud­u­lent for fail­ing to con­tain the qual­ity of oil that was writ­ten on the label.

Now, olive oil asso­ci­a­tions Asoliva, Anierac, Infaoliva and Agri-food Cooperatives Spain have sent a letter to the Spanish Ministry of Environment, Rural and Marine Affairs (MARM), con­demn­ing “seri­ous prob­lems” aris­ing from the organolep­tic
analy­sis method for the clas­si­fi­ca­tion of olive oil.

The four groups of pro­duc­ers and indus­tri­als claim that the method is sub­jec­tive as the test­ing panel is based on sen­sory tast­ing which, they say, is unre­li­able.

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In the letter, the group states that all olive oil pro­duc­ing coun­tries highly ques­tion the test­ing panel method and are con­cerned that these “sub­jec­tive meth­ods” high­light the vul­ner­a­bil­ity of the sector, which in turn is cre­at­ing “a false and unnec­es­sary con­cern among con­sumers, and is dis­grac­ing oils, busi­nesses and brands, not only in Spain but world­wide.”

They have demanded that MARM avoid the label of “fraud” when refer­ring to olive oil and that test­ing be con­ducted before it is deliv­ered for com­mer­cial use, when prob­lems in the oil as a result of its pack­ag­ing, preser­va­tion and dis­play on the shelves can occur.

The asso­ci­a­tions have also requested an imme­di­ate halt to test­ing to pre­vent fur­ther dis­cred­it­ing EVOO, whose image, they say, has been “badly dam­aged around the world.”

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However, the virgin olive oil sector with Designation of Origin in Spain (DOS) has expressed sur­prise at the letter.

José Manuel Bajo Prados, Executive Secretary of DOS’s National Sector, says “it is incom­pre­hen­si­ble that those who por­tray them­selves as rep­re­sent­ing the indus­try are trying to delete one of the few tools that the pro­ducer, proces­sor and packer have to ensure con­sumers that Spanish olive oil is of the utmost qual­ity”.

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“The devel­op­ment of com­pa­nies oper­at­ing under a DO is based on qual­ity cri­te­ria and these objec­tives have largely led to a sig­nif­i­cant improve­ment on the image of Spanish EVOO around the world,” Mr Bajo Prados said.  “We must ensure that the con­sumer takes home what it says on the label as with any other prod­uct. Organoleptic assess­ment has been a valid tool for the past 25 years.”

Secretary of the Andalusian sector, Moisés Caballero Páez, says one of the few pro­tec­tions that pro­duc­ers have is dif­fer­en­ti­a­tion of price by qual­ity, with tast­ing
being the only method which cur­rently exists to ensure these dif­fer­ences.

He says it seems incred­i­ble that these asso­ci­a­tions are making peti­tions on behalf of the entire sector that only appear to respond to the par­tic­u­lar inter­ests of a group of com­pa­nies.

A tech­ni­cal arti­cle in the Spanish Association of Olive Municipalities’s (AEMO) e‑Olivar Bulletin has slammed the letter, saying “we think that orga­ni­za­tions can ask for what they deem appro­pri­ate but, hon­estly, we do not under­stand the sig­na­tures of almost anyone on that letter, espe­cially that of Agri-food Cooperatives, because Agri-food Cooperatives are above all olive grow­ers and, although unor­ga­nized, we are not sui­ci­dal”.

“We hope that not all those who make up these orga­ni­za­tions believe what is expressed in this letter,” it said.

The Bulletin says the only way to sen­su­ally char­ac­ter­ize oils is through groups of people who are prop­erly trained and under strict rules that are clear, trans­par­ent and inter­na­tion­ally rec­og­nized.

“So why are they ques­tion­ing some­thing now that is so obvi­ous? The sale of extra virgin olive oils advances every day over olive oil and this is because the con­sumer, espe­cially abroad, begins to learn the ben­e­fits of olive oil over refined oil, both the organolep­tic and, above all, health advan­tages. They are two dif­fer­ent prod­ucts and the public is begin­ning to rec­og­nize it.”

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It says the prob­lem arises when “you want to sell some­thing of higher qual­ity but do not want to pay as such”.

“There is only one solu­tion: seek real extra virgin olive oils and value them as such, or buy lam­pante oils, refine them and label them with their name … because get­ting rid of organolep­tic char­ac­ter­i­za­tion, gen­tle­men, is not the solu­tion.”

In AEMO’s offi­cial stance on the issue, Agronomist and Editor in Chief of the AEMO Bulletin José Maria Penco told Olive Oil Times AEMO is com­mit­ted to the qual­ity of olive oil and con­sid­ers the para­me­ter of organolep­tic assess­ment nec­es­sary for the clas­si­fi­ca­tion of oils, along with the other physico-chem­i­cal indices, so as to ensure that the prod­uct offered to con­sumers is of the high­est qual­ity.

“That said, AEMO also believes that the pro­ce­dure for taking sam­ples and cer­ti­fi­ca­tion of the test­ing panels must be car­ried out with the great­est level of secu­rity pos­si­ble and cer­tify total guar­an­tee of the method and pro­tec­tion of pro­duc­ers,” Mr. Penco said.

In order to ease the four asso­ci­a­tions’ con­cerns, the DO says it is will­ing to join a work­ing group in order to seek fur­ther improve­ments in cur­rent meth­ods and pro­vide infor­ma­tion to con­sumers.  It is also prepar­ing a letter to Spain’s Minister of Environment, Rural and Marine Affairs Rosa Aguilar and the regional Agriculture Ministries in order to express strong sup­port for market con­trols and to show its inter­est in col­lab­o­rat­ing with the entire olive and olive oil sector to improve the reli­a­bil­ity of con­trols in EVOO.

The e‑Olivar Bulletin says Spain’s olive oil sector is in a dif­fi­cult posi­tion, with olive groves facing their third year of losses, the eco­nomic crisis has affected con­sumers’ buying habits, EVOO “hook” offers reof­fend again and again in Spanish super­mar­kets, pack­ers are forced to cut costs to impos­si­ble limits in order to meet demand, and new plan­ta­tions are begin­ning to show their pro­duc­tive poten­tial.

“There are many cir­cum­stances that have stirred the sector but that should never make us lose sight, because it would be a strate­gic and his­tor­i­cal mis­take, in this tur­moil, if we degraded the great strength of our prod­uct: qual­ity and its guar­an­tee.  “It would be an irre­versible path to nowhere.”