Understanding the New USDA Olive Oil Standards

Sep. 14, 2010
By 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.