` Snapshot of Olive Oil Choices in One American Neighborhood - Olive Oil Times

Snapshot of Olive Oil Choices in One American Neighborhood

Jul 16, 2010 2:17 PM EDT
Denise Johnson

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With daily dis­patches about the health ben­e­fits of olive oil, praises by celebrity chefs and a boom­ing new olive oil indus­try right here in our own California, the good times are rolling for con­sumers in the States who finally have bound­less options for fresh, high-qual­ity extra vir­gin olive oil. Right?

So I thought I’d head down to my local Stop & Shop, behold the selec­tion and con­firm that the monoun­sat­u­rated rev­o­lu­tion had indeed reached Boston. Armed only with the cam­era on my Blackberry, I’m an under­cover olive oil spy.

At first, it took me a while to find the olive oil aisle. Then it turned out not to be an aisle at all, but a 36″ wide sliver, wedged between vine­gars (not from Modena, mostly malt — this is the land of fish & chips after all) and mus­tards.

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At eye-level, the part of the shelf reserved for the best-sell­ers was the pure” and light” olive oils with the store’s name. Chances are, these and the other pri­vate label oils here are pro­duced by Sovena, the giant pri­vate label olive oil bot­tler in upstate New York.

Below were jugs from Bertolli (which is owned by the $40 Billion con­glom­er­ate Unilever), Filippo Berio (the U.S.market leader) and Rienzi Foods.

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While a liter of Rienzi Pure Olive Oil was priced at $9.99, a liter of Bertolli Extra Virgin was just one dol­lar more. The insignif­i­cant price spread shows the smart money is on peo­ple not know­ing the vast dif­fer­ences between these grades.

Most had Product of Italy” some­where on the bot­tle, and a few pro­claimed more omi­nously Packed in Italy”. Never mind all of the award-win­ning California olive oils you’ve been hear­ing about. If you’re look­ing for fresh domes­tic olive oil here, at the largest food retailer in the Northeastern United States, you’ve come to the wrong place. Not a sin­gle olive oil from California.

The pre­mium olive oil (i.e. not appear­ing to be man­u­fac­tured by a global food con­glom­er­ate) was rep­re­sented by three rus­tic-look­ing bot­tles way at the top with the name Monini — a mere $100+ Million Italian con­cern. Monini alone occu­pied the top tier of the shelf and rep­re­sented 100% of the selec­tions for pre­mium olive oil at my local gro­cery store. I thought how Monini” kind of sounded like more money.”

On the top shelf these pre­mium olive oil selec­tions, not big enough on their own to fill the 36-inch shelf-width of the pure and light jugs below, shared space with sesame and grape seed oils. The Monini Originale” Extra Virgin Olive Oil was $9.99 for 500ML. Characterized by its unmis­tak­ably full, well bal­anced and har­mo­nious taste enhanced by fresh notes rem­i­nis­cent of new grass. Everything that one could expect from a true Originale,” the Monini web­site explained, adding acid­ity of 0.4% — less than half of the max­i­mum allowed by law.”

Next to that, for more than twice the price of the Originale was the Monini DOP” Extra Virgin Olive Oils from Umbria at $22.99. There was no expla­na­tion on the bot­tle for the higher price, although the label did have a lot of gold foil and a map of Italy. The Monini web­site described its vin­tage bou­quet and a wooden hint typ­i­cal of the oils from Umbria mak­ing it a per­fect condi­ment for game, grilled meat and veg­etable soups. Its unique char­ac­ter­is­tics have been rec­og­nized by the Denomination of Protected Origin DOP. which indi­cates supe­rior qual­ity and guar­an­tees the local ori­gin,” and then again the acid­ity claim… 0.3% — less than a third of the max­i­mum allowed by law”.

The other two were Monini’s Toscano IGP and the DOP Val de Mazara, which were sim­i­larly pack­aged, except for the dif­fer­ent col­ored labels. I knew, of course, that each of these would have unique fla­vor pro­files that were char­ac­ter­is­tic of the three pro­tected ori­gin des­ig­na­tions. While the Originale’ would be blended to min­i­mize any fla­vor note or pun­gency that might offend some hap­less salad dresser, these DOPs would express their ter­roirs. Or as the Monini web­site stated, a new range of typ­i­cal oils from dif­fer­ent regions of Italy obtained from the most pre­cious vari­eties of olives and char­ac­ter­ized by pleas­ant fruity fla­vors and fra­grances. All these prod­ucts surely add value to the niche mar­ket whose rapid expan­sion is a result of ever-grow­ing con­sumers’ inter­est in typ­i­cal prod­ucts.”

They’re mak­ing per­fectly great extra vir­gin olive oils on our own left coast with half the FFA, and at a lower cost. I could­n’t imag­ine why a sin­gle olive oil from a domes­tic pro­ducer like California Olive Ranch, Lucero Olive Oil, Calivirgin or McEvoy Ranch had­n’t made it to my gro­cery store. Three days away by truck. But alright, when I’m in a pinch, for $23, I could pick up a bot­tle of decent olive oil from an Italian region I could iden­tify, and with an acid­ity of .3 max.

Continuing that thought I spun the DOP bot­tle around to check the date. The olive oil was made from the 2008 har­vest and there was no best before” date. The other pre­mium” olive oils were the same, and as I looked on the other bot­tles below I found expi­ra­tion dates that had passed and some incon­ceiv­ably far into the future. I could­n’t find a sin­gle har­vest date or bot­tling date on any of the olive oils, other than the pre­mium” ones.

Stepping back I once again scanned the piti­ful olive oil sec­tion of my super­mar­ket. Then I turned and mar­veled at the sea of gold that was the cook­ing oils sec­tion. Laboratory tests must have con­firmed that American con­sumers are com­pletely seduced by the par­tic­u­lar golden yel­low glow ema­nat­ing from this area of the gro­cery store aisle because no man­u­fac­turer ever dared to stray from the clear bot­tle and Pantone-pre­cise pee-color. Even the labels were all the same.

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We’ve got a long way to go.


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