Deception works out cheap for some oil companies.
Practically nobody in the olive oil sector is unaware of the work done by Arco Agroalimentaria. In the space of just a few years, this young company has succeeded in positioning itself as an international benchmark offering all sorts of services designed to help producers achieve the best quality oils and gain the maximum profit from their plantations.
The road to its current position has not been easy, particularly bearing in mind that Spanish producers have always been reticent about contracting the services of an external consultancy firm. Nonetheless, once the desired results are obtained, nobody questions the worth of these services again.
Maximiliano Arteaga, Maxi to all those who appreciate him, is a good friend over and above all else. Or at least that is how those of us that give life to this magazine see him. It was thanks to him and his inseparable partner, César Cólliga, that we discovered the mysteries of oil tasting. This happened many, many years before we decided to embark on this editorial project which, by the way, they have unconditionally supported right from the very beginning. A fact for which we will be eternally grateful.
At present, apart from our bonds of friendship, we are also united by a close professional relationship, that is reflected in each and every edition of our “Tasting Panel” section, in which they independently and rigorously analyse each of the oils sent to their laboratory.
We were practically witnesses to the birth of the company they jointly manage, Arco Agroalimentaria, and since then we have seen them grow unstoppably to obtain well-deserved national and international recognition. And if we have not yet done so, we would like to take advantage of this article to offer them our heartfelt congratulations on their successes and to encourage them to continue meeting both personal and professional goals.
Whenever an article or a service appears in the market, it tends to do so for two main reasons: either to respond to a demand, or to generate a new need. In the case of Arco Agroalimentaria, what drove you to create the company?
Arco Agroalimentaria was founded back in the year 2000 with the aim of providing technical consultancy services to the various oil-producing companies. In this respect, both César and I already had extensive training in agriculture and food technology. We also had a certain amount of knowledge about the initial phases in the olive oil elaboration process, as both of our families have always managed their own production.
In principle, our activity mainly resolved around providing training to all sorts of companies and cooperatives related to the oil sector. Among the subjects addressed, the most frequent revolved around olive cultivation, elaboration, sensorial analysis and quality.
After a time, we gradually began to work towards increasing company profitability, by optimising mill and bodega management.
In reality, to answer your question, the need already existed, even though the sector had not yet realised it. Fortunately, this latter situation is changing and more and more companies are turning to outsourced consultants with a view to becoming more competitive.
What types of services does the company offer? For whom are they designed?
At present, Arco Agroalimentaria offers a broad range of services which, in all cases adapt to the specific needs of each individual client. We are therefore flexible enough to set all sorts of projects in motion. For instance, we can help a company that doesn’t have its own production or installations to create a brand and put an oil on sale. Or, on the other end of the scale, we are also capable of developing big initiatives, such as those involving hundreds of hectares of olive groves, a mill and installations of its own. There is a detailed list of the services we offer on the company website (www.arcoagroalimentaria.com). These include the creation and training of panels of tasters, specialised training for companies, the agricultural supervision of the crop, management of the elaboration process and of the bodega itself, quality control, the elaboration of coupages, the classification of oils for specialised competitions and guides, descriptive sensorial analysis, and the selection of oils for sale and assessment.
You have already given us an overview of the experience both you and César contributed to the early phase of your company. What experience has the company given you?
Well, apart from our technical university education and our practical knowledge about crop management, we also contributed our experience as tasting panel members.
After 12 years of work, logically this accumulated experience is now far more extensive. The fact of having acted as panel heads in the creation and training of 6 analytical taste panels in Spain and another in Portugal, has allowed us to delve deeply into the sensorial analysis methodology, differentiating between the positive and negative attributes of the oils and identifying the various organoleptic profiles expressed by each of the olive varietals.
On the other hand, our participation as expert tasters in international competitions has made it possible for us to build a global vision of the oils produced around the world.
Since its foundation, Arco Agroalimentaria has attempted to support numerous clients with very different profiles. In this sense, all of that experience and “know-how” helps us to optimize projects on a daily basis.
One thing is to observe an economic sector from the outside, but it is quite a different matter to do it from the inside out. Now that you form an active part of the oil sector, what is your view of Spanish extra virgin olive oil? What have you learned since conceiving of the company?
Personally, my current perception tells me that the sector has undergone an important evolution, both from the point of view of the oils obtained, and that of their sale in international markets. It is clear that the oil industry is becoming more and more professional, which is fundamental if it wants to be competitive, profitable and, above all, if the farmer wishes to live off the olive tree as well as he did in the past.
Nonetheless, even if some decisive steps have been taken, there is still a lot to be done in improving the average quality of the oils, while also modernising the sales structures.
In this time, I have also learned that there is little interest in informing the consumer about the various qualities and the different oil types that exist. The consumer has the right to choose whichever product best satisfies his needs or preferences, but always from a knowledgeable standpoint and not based on a lack of information. Is it so hard to explain that an olive oil is the product of an industrial process of chemical refinement and that an extra virgin is the natural juice of the olive?
If quality should be the ultimate goal of any virgin olive oil producer, how can your company contribute to reaching this goal?
By applying a rigorous protocol that begins in the groves, where we determine the optimal moment of ripeness in order to obtain the desired quality level. Subsequently, we supervise each of the elaboration process phases. The oils obtained in this way are stored in deposits and afterwards the necessary coupages are made, thus producing a series of batches that adapt to the preferences of the target markets.
Do you think that virgin olive oil producers are open to innovation in order to achieve this quality you mentioned? Which aspects do you think have they succeeded in improving and which still need work?
In my opinion, when it comes to machinery and equipment, the producer is open to innovation. However, when it comes to human resources, producers are still reticent about placing themselves in the hands of a technical consultant for advice and assessment throughout the entire production process and who will help increase their company’s profitability. A similar scenario is applicable to those consultants responsible for other aspects as important as sales and marketing.
Unfortunately, in the majority of cases, the producers are looking for instant profitability. A bit of a paradox when you consider that these professionals in particular should know that you have to sow seeds before you can reap the fruits.
This is a less common situation in Italy, where even the smallest oil producers use external consultants.
Speaking of Italy, it has always been a worldwide point of reference for quality. If Spanish oils now offer comparable qualities, why hasn’t Spain managed to position itself in the traditional European and North American markets?
Indeed, these markets have always been dominated by the Italian brands. In this sense, we must remember that the simple fact of making a quality product does not guarantee reaching the international consumer. For this, quality is a necessary condition, but not sufficient in itself.
In any case, the efforts being made by Spanish companies to improve the aforementioned quality, marketing and sales are leading to their oils gaining ground from the Italian competitors bit by bit. The excellent results obtained throughout recent years in international competitions, in which we have even surpassed the Italian firms, is enabling our oils to finally occupy the position they deserve.
In my opinion, we are now shaking off the inferiority complex accumulated over the years and which prevented us from realising that we were equally capable of obtaining the same quality –or even better quality- than that offered by the Italians. At present, all we have left to do is to learn to sell our product more effectively.
It is precisely some of these markets in which Spain has not yet succeeded in positioning itself that are periodically scandalised by increasingly frequent cases of fraud, at least in the media. What do you think is the real scope of this practice? How do you think it affects honest producers? And the consumer?
I don’t know what the real scope of this fraudulent practice is, although it is clear to me that, like in any other game, the rules always need to be respected. In Spain, not only are there some companies that do not stick to the rules, but which are not categorically punished for this practice, and rather frequently repeat the same type of infractions over and over. Deception works out cheap for them.
Nor am I aware of the number of controls carried out by the administrations, but it is clear that they do not meet the objectives the production sector would like. If fraud is detected, it should be sanctioned, as the profits obtained from this type of practice are higher than the damage caused by the sanction.
In these cases those who lose out are always the same. That is, the honest producers who strive to comply with regulations and come up against disloyal competition which, bit by bit, ends up chipping away at their will to improve. On the other hand, the consumers also pay the consequences as they are paying for a quality level that does not actually correspond to the reality. Thus distrust is generated that ends up affecting the entire sector.
Thinking about what you’ve just said, do you think there is any difference between the gourmet consumers and those who buy their virgin olive oil in the normal points of sale?
Yes, there are differences. The gourmet consumer is becoming more and more demanding when it comes to quality. Certain brands or varietals are already being demanded, in which they find the sensorial profiles and attributes they like. On the other hand, among the consumers who visit the habitual points of sale, in the majority of cases price is the main criteria for purchase in detriment to quality.
Born in Madrid on August 24th 1973, Maxi has a degree in Chemical Sciences from the Universidad Autónoma de Madrid, where he specialised in Agricultural Chemistry.
Just after finishing his studies, he started working for a company in the oil sector, specifically in the section of Near Infrared (NIR) equipment applied to the virgin olive oil elaboration process. Nevertheless, this was not where his relationship with this product began, given that his family had previously managed some estates in Toledo. In this province, together with César Cólloga, he also owns his own groves.
His work as a taster on an analytical taste panel also stands out on his CV, a position he occupied before creating Arco Agroalimentaria. After founding the company, he started to work training other companies and taste panels.
It was precisely these aptitudes that allowed him to participate as an expert taster in various international competitions, Just this year alone, he has collaborated in those organized by the German magazine, Der Feinschmecker, the Italian guide Flos Olei, Oil China trade fair, as well as the Italian fairs, Sol and Medoliva.
Maxi also contributes to the “Taste Panel” section of OLIVARAMA, offering a complete sensorial analysis of the oils.
Up close and personal
An extra virgin: The highest quality oil, the one that is still on the olive tree.
An olive varietal: All of them, if and when they are well made.
An olive grove landscape: The olive groves of Ibiza.
A restaurant that takes a special interest in olive oil: El Olivar de Moratalla (Murcia).
A dish with extra virgin olive oil: Bread with a freshly extracted good extra virgin.
A wish for extra virgin olive oil: For it to occupy the position it deserves.