`Understanding the New USDA Olive Oil Standards - Olive Oil Times

Understanding the New USDA Olive Oil Standards

Sep. 14, 2010
A.K. Devarenne and P. Vossen

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Effective October 24, 2010, the United States has new Standards for Grades of Olive Oil and Olive-Pomace Oil. This is a revi­sion of stan­dards that have been in place since 1948. There is a lot of uncer­tainty over what these stan­dards will mean for olive oil in the US. Some of the impli­ca­tions of the new stan­dards are not entirely clear, but here we will try to answer the most com­mon ques­tions about what is and what is not cov­ered by these stan­dards.

What is cov­ered by the new US Department of Agriculture (USDA) stan­dards?

The USDA stan­dards define the dif­fer­ent grades of olive oil and olive-pomace oil
using chem­i­cal and sen­sory para­me­ters that are sim­i­lar to those of the
International Olive Council (IOC). These stan­dards are for:

  • US Extra Virgin Olive Oil
  • US Virgin Olive Oil
  • US Virgin Olive Oil Not Fit For Human Consumption Without Further Processing
    (some­times des­ig­nated as US Lampante Virgin Olive Oil)
  • US Olive Oil
  • US Refined Olive Oil
  • US Olive-Pomace Oil
  • US Refined Olive-Pomace Oil
  • US Crude Olive-Pomace Oil

You can down­load the new USDA stan­dard in its entirety here: Standards for Grades of Olive Oil and Olive-Pomace Oil

The USDA stan­dards are vol­un­tary, and cover the terms US Extra Virgin,” etc. This means that pro­duc­ers may choose to seek cer­ti­fi­ca­tion by the USDA as US Extra Virgin Olive Oil” if they wish, but that it is not manda­tory.

Does this mean there will be no impact on olive oils that do not choose to use the U.S.” grade des­ig­na­tions?

That remains to be seen. The USDA is not an enforce­ment agency; it defines stan­dards, and it serves as an inspec­tion agency. It is the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) that actu­ally does the reg­u­la­tion. The Federal Register puts it this way:

The [olive oil stan­dards] revi­sion will facil­i­tate the mar­ket­ing of olive oil and olive-pomace oil, employ terms con­sis­tent with the mar­ket­place, pro­vide def­i­n­i­tions for olive oil and olive-pomace oil, pro­mote truth in label­ing, and pro­vide a basis for enforce­ment by State and Federal agen­cies if these prod­ucts are mis­la­beled.”
(Federal Register / Vol. 75, No. 81 / Weds. April 28, 2010 / Notices)

The key phrase here is truth in label­ing.” Truth in label­ing issues fall under the purview of the FDA. Allegations of truth in label­ing vio­la­tions are a likely place for the next chap­ter to start. Now that we have a US stan­dard for extra vir­gin olive oil,” there is a strong case to be made that any­one call­ing them­selves extra vir­gin olive oil” should meet that stan­dard or they are using mis­lead­ing label­ing lan­guage. The next year will be an inter­est­ing one as the impact of the new stan­dard is tested in the mar­ket­place and, pos­si­bly, in the courts.

If they are not manda­tory, what is the point of hav­ing USDA stan­dards?

The exis­tence of the USDA stan­dards is a crit­i­cal first step to enforc­ing some mean­ing­ful qual­ity stan­dards in this coun­try. There is also the pos­si­bil­ity that pri­vate enti­ties, such as super­mar­ket chains, and pub­lic enti­ties, such as school lunch pro­grams, will require USDA cer­ti­fi­ca­tion for all the olive oil they pur­chase. That would have an enor­mous impact. There is also a pos­si­ble mar­ket advan­tage to hav­ing the USDA grade shield on your prod­uct. If con­sumers learn to look for that cer­ti­fi­ca­tion as their guar­an­tee of qual­ity in olive oil, then it could con­fer an edge in the mar­ket­place, as in years past when the USDA grade shield was some­thing peo­ple looked for on canned goods or meat, for exam­ple, or the way the USDA Organic shield serves today.

How does the USDA cer­ti­fi­ca­tion process work?

In order to be cer­ti­fied as US Extra Virgin Olive Oil, the prod­uct must be inspected by the USDA. This means that a USDA inspec­tor will pull sam­ples accord­ing to a sta­tis­ti­cally designed pro­to­col and sub­mit them for analy­sis. The stan­dard requires that the prod­uct that is sam­pled and cer­ti­fied is ver­i­fi­ably the same prod­uct that is sold as such. This means that one sam­ple can­not be tested and the deter­mined grade regarded as cov­er­ing the entire pro­duc­tion of that year. If a tank of oil is inspected and graded, it is only that tank of oil that can bear the USDA grade. Because of the per­ish­able nature of olive oil, there is also likely to be some pro­to­col pro­vid­ing for updat­ing of an inspec­tion. The details of how this would func­tion are to be deter­mined. The inspec­tor will sub­mit sam­ples to a selected lab, but simul­ta­ne­ously, sam­ples will be sent to the USDA lab­o­ra­tory in Blakely, Georgia. The chem­i­cal require­ments, and expla­na­tions of the dif­fer­ent tests, are in the Standards for Grades of Olive Oil and Olive-Pomace Oil Appendix. The stan­dard calls for sen­sory eval­u­a­tion as well as the chem­i­cal analy­sis.

Who will do the sen­sory analy­sis?

The USDA lab in Blakely, Georgia is estab­lish­ing an olive oil taste panel using the IOC pro­to­cols. The IOC pro­to­cols and recog­ni­tion process are described here: International Olive Council (IOC) Olive Oil Sensory Evaluation Methodology (PDF). The USDA has staff peo­ple with expe­ri­ence in sen­sory analy­sis of var­i­ous prod­ucts. According to the USDA, the sen­sory panel at Blakely will be trained and capa­ble of ana­lyz­ing sam­ples when the stan­dard goes into effect on Oct. 25, 2010.

How do other coun­tries han­dle the enforce­ment of olive oil stan­dards?

The IOC defines the stan­dard but does not do any enforce­ment. In fact, the IOC can­not require a mem­ber nation to enforce the stan­dard; the bur­den of enforce­ment lies entirely with the gov­ern­ment of the mem­ber nation or its des­ig­nated regional author­ity. The IOC can make agree­ments with groups as well as nations; for exam­ple the IOC has an agree­ment with the North American Olive Oil Association (NAOOA) to ana­lyze oils in IOC-rec­og­nized labs (they do not do sen­sory analy­sis for the NAOOA).

The case of enforce­ment in Spain (home of the IOC) is fairly typ­i­cal: inspec­tors from a regional author­ity pur­chase ran­dom sam­ples of olive oil from super­mar­ket shelves. These sam­ples are sent to an offi­cial food lab belong­ing to that regional author­ity. Sensory eval­u­a­tion is not being done by all the regions, but there is a final arbiter in the form of a Spanish gov­ern­ment food lab taste panel in Madrid. A pro­ducer can ask for trip­li­cate analy­sis in the event of a con­tro­versy.

In Spain and else­where, notably Germany and Australia, some super­mar­ket chains are test­ing olive oils for com­pli­ance with stan­dards. This gate­keeper” approach takes the onus off the gov­ern­ment reg­u­la­tors and puts it on the pro­ducer: in order to sell to that mar­ket chain, you must prove that your oil meets the applic­a­ble stan­dard. If you don’t wish to do so, that’s fine, but you won’t be able to sell your oil to that super­mar­ket chain.

I am a California pro­ducer of extra vir­gin olive oil; what do I need to do?

If you would like to receive US Extra Virgin Olive Oil cer­ti­fi­ca­tion, con­tact the USDA Processed Products Branch at (202) 720‑5021. The cost for cer­ti­fi­ca­tion is esti­mated to be about $2000 per lot. The states of California, Oregon and Connecticut already have legal stan­dards in place defin­ing extra vir­gin.” There is no for­mal mech­a­nism in place for enforce­ment of the California stan­dard, but in order to com­ply with that California stan­dard, you should be sure that your olive oil is really extra vir­gin if you are going to call it that. There are a num­ber of labs in the US that test olive oil on a fee-for-ser­vice basis. These include the USDA lab in Blakely, Georgia, as well as pri­vate lab­o­ra­to­ries. A list of labs is avail­able here: US Extra Virgin Olive Oil cer­ti­fi­ca­tion labs (PDF).

Is there an IOC-rec­og­nized taste panel that will eval­u­ate my oil?

Currently, there are no IOC-rec­og­nized olive oil taste pan­els in the US. IOC recog­ni­tion is given only to unbi­ased gov­ern­ment-spon­sored taste pan­els that abide by the IOC taste panel reg­u­la­tions and pass a series of exams called ring tests” that mea­sure a panel’s acu­ity and con­sis­tency. The USDA taste panel will be eli­gi­ble for IOC-recog­ni­tion if they can pass the ring tests and other require­ments. A num­ber of IOC-rec­og­nized olive oil taste pan­els will do fee-for-ser­vice test­ing. A list of those pan­els with notes of the prices they charge can be down­loaded here: International Olive Council rec­og­nized olive oil taste pan­els (PDF). The UC Davis Olive Oil Sensory Panel plans to seek recog­ni­tion from the IOC and will pro­vide fee-for-ser­vice sen­sory analy­sis and infor­ma­tion about whether the oil com­plies with extra vir­gin stan­dards. The Olive Center web­site will have updated infor­ma­tion on the panel’s progress.

How do other cer­ti­fi­ca­tions work?

There are a num­ber of dif­fer­ent cer­ti­fi­ca­tion schemes in place for olive oil. Most of these pro­grams are vol­un­tary and do not pro­vide a legal cer­ti­fi­ca­tion of the mar­ket grade of the oil, but rather a pro­mo­tional eval­u­a­tion of the oil for their tar­get mar­ket. The fol­low­ing is a sam­pling of the pro­grams:

In Europe and other IOC mem­ber coun­tries, the IOC stan­dard for olive oil is in effect. There is no cer­ti­fi­ca­tion” require­ment per se; the pro­ducer may or may not have their oil tested before putting it into the mar­ket­place. The IOC stan­dard is enforced by each coun­try or region, usu­ally by spot check­ing, so the words extra vir­gin” on a bot­tle have to be true. There is also a sys­tem of cer­ti­fi­ca­tion for spe­cific geo­graphic des­ig­na­tions of ori­gin that guar­an­tee an oil as being from a par­tic­u­lar region, typ­i­cal of that region, and meet­ing their spe­cific qual­ity stan­dards. These are referred to as DOP, DO, DOC, GDO, etc., depend­ing on the coun­try and des­ig­na­tion, but all use the same blue and yel­low seal. This means that the oil is made from a par­tic­u­lar vari­ety or vari­eties, grown in a des­ig­nated region, and that it is har­vested and milled to a spe­cific style that is typ­i­cal of that region. The European Union has a seal that appears on the labels of pro­tected des­ig­na­tion prod­ucts.

grades-production-understanding-the-new-usda-olive-oil-standards-olive-oil-times-california-olive-oil-associationIn California, the California Olive Oil Council (COOC) has a seal pro­gram that grants mem­bers a COOC Certified Extra Virgin” seal for California-pro­duced olive oil that meets the COOC stan­dard for chem­i­cal analy­sis and is found free of defects by the COOC taste panel. Their 0.5% stan­dard for free fatty acids is more strin­gent than the IOC’s 0.8% stan­dard. Details of their cer­ti­fi­ca­tion pro­gram are avail­able here: California Olive Oil Council olive oil cer­ti­fi­ca­tion

grades-production-understanding-the-new-usda-olive-oil-standards-olive-oil-times-north-american-olive-oil-associationThe North American Olive Oil Association (NAOOA) has a qual­ity seal pro­gram for its mem­bers. The NAOOA Certified Quality seal is awarded to imported prod­ucts that meet the IOC stan­dards as deter­mined by an IOC-accred­ited lab­o­ra­tory. The seal may be used on vir­gin and refined olive oils, but not olive-pomace oil. In the case of extra vir­gin grade oils, the NAOOA seal requires sen­sory analy­sis by an IOC-rec­og­nized panel. Detailed infor­ma­tion about the NAOOA seal pro­gram is avail­able on the NAOOA web­site: North American Olive Oil Association olive oil qual­ity seal pro­gram

grades-production-understanding-the-new-usda-olive-oil-standards-olive-oil-times-australia-olive-associationThe Australian Olive Association, Ltd (AOA) has an Australian Certified Extra Virgin” seal. This seal is only found on AOA mem­ber olive oils pro­duced in Australia. In order to receive the seal, a pro­ducer must sign a Code of Practices that addresses olive oil qual­ity, food safety, eth­i­cal mar­ket­ing, envi­ron­men­tal stan­dards and other issues. The oil must meet most of the same chem­i­cal stan­dards as the IOC, and be cer­ti­fied free from sen­sory defects and pos­sess­ing some olive fruiti­ness by three AOA-accred­ited tasters. The AOA pro­gram includes label­ing guide­lines, and para­me­ters for the use of ranci­mat test­ing and use by” dates. The entire code of prac­tices is avail­able on the AOA site: Australian Olive Association Code of Practices

grades-production-understanding-the-new-usda-olive-oil-standards-olive-oil-times-olives-new-zealandThe Olives New Zealand (ONZ) cer­ti­fi­ca­tion pro­gram is open to non-mem­bers as well as mem­bers. It includes bot­tling and label­ing stan­dards as well as chem­i­cal and sen­sory cri­te­ria. The ONZ cer­ti­fi­ca­tion requires that the oil be bot­tled in dark glass, or if in clear glass that it be in a box or other light-exclud­ing pack­age. They also require a press­ing date. The sen­sory require­ments are the same as the IOC: no defects and some olive fruiti­ness. The ONZ pro­gram is described here: Olives New Zealand (ONZ) Certification Program

grades-production-understanding-the-new-usda-olive-oil-standards-olive-oil-times-association-3eThe inter­na­tional group, Association 3E, cer­ti­fies oils in Italy, Spain, Greece and California as super-pre­mium,” a higher stan­dard than extra vir­gin.” In addi­tion to the absence of sen­sory defects, the oil must be eval­u­ated for pos­i­tive attrib­utes by a des­ig­nated panel. The pro­ducer must sign a code of prac­tice that requires trace­abil­ity and trans­parency of the vol­ume of the oil cer­ti­fied and sold under that cer­ti­fi­ca­tion, as well as the qual­ity of the prod­uct.

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