The American Oil Chemists’ Society (AOCS) recently released a revised list of sensory panels recognized by the Urbana, Illinois-based organization for the evaluation and grading of olive oils. Just four panels were deemed worthy of full accreditation, while five achieved an honorable mention and the “recognized” designation.
Among the accredited panels, one is in Italy, two are in Australia, and a fourth, Pompeian’s lab in Maryland, operates for its own purposes and doesn’t solicit outside samples. The five recognized panels (in addition to the accredited ones) include one in Japan, another in Greece, and three in California, though the UC Davis Olive Center tasting panel, recognized for the past several years, has dropped from the list.
Modern Olives Laboratory Services (Australia)
NSW Department of Primary Industry, Wagga Wagga (Australia)
Pompeian Inc. (United States)
AOCS Recognized Panels
Applied Sensory (United States)
California Olive Oil Council (United States)
Multichrome Lab (Greece)
Shozu Olive Research Institute (Japan)
University of California Cooperative Extension (United States)
Dan Flynn, executive director at the Olive Center said discontinuing the panel was a simple business decision. “We were subsidizing the program at $25,000 a year,” he said. “We’re a self-funded center, and we were pulling money from other areas to pay for it. We just couldn’t afford it.”
To understand how the world of evaluating and grading olive oil functions, we must first look at the industry’s status quo. At the front of the room, there’s the International Olive Council (IOC), established under the United Nations in the 1950s. The intergovernmental group’s role, as recently explained by Flynn, is to develop standards to facilitate the trade of olive oil around the world. Today, the European Union, as well as other olive- and olive oil-producing countries, and even some non-producers, are members of the IOC and, according to Flynn, its membership represents “probably more than 95 percent of the world’s olive oil production.”
With its half-century in the game, the IOC has the first word on sensory and chemical evaluation of olive oil in much of the world. There are 54 certified panels endorsed by the IOC. Not one of them is in the U.S.
As a matter of policy, the U.S. does not engage in organizations of this nature and is not a member of the group. Despite efforts by the IOC to lure the United States into the fold, “In Washington,” said Flynn, “the message keeps coming back that the U.S. does not want to cede any of its jurisdiction over standard-setting to a group of foreign nations. Moreover, IOC voting is based solely on production and not on consumption so a vote on where to set a standard is always going to be weighted toward those countries with the highest production. From the U.S. perspective, this is disadvantageous because though its consumption is high, American production is low compared to the major producing countries of the world. Even as members, given the way the system is currently constructed, the U.S would have very little influence.”
Enter the AOCS, an organization of scientists from around the globe who study oils of all kinds. Their role is to develop methods for evaluating oil quality and purity and their methodology is perhaps more technically focused with less emphasis on the sensory component. It’s also less political, Flynn believes. “Less fraught with controversy, more focused on proficiency.”
The AOCS has only recently begun to get into the olive oil arena, a whole different animal from their usual subjects. “Extra virgin olive oil is made like a fruit juice,” Flynn noted, “whereas most of the oils the organization has studied — canola, corn, soybean — are highly refined and processed.”
Sensory expert Sue Langstaff’s Applied Sensory LLC picked up where UC Davis left off, taking over the Olive Center’s panel and its membership, and making the AOCS list of approved panels. But Langstaff isn’t as sure as Flynn that the AOCS process is less political or as consistent and above board as she’d prefer. She’s also concerned about the depth of the sensory knowledge at work among those tested for the designations.
“This is good information for the public to know,” she told Olive Oil Times. “Because the whole thing is obfuscated. No one is checking to see if the panels being tested by the AOCS are trained properly.”
Though the basic criteria used by the AOCS are based on IOC protocols, Langstaff said, they are not following the IOC lead on data analysis. Langstaff wants to know, “Who are these people being tested? How do we know if their training and background are consistent?”
Langstaff said results from the tests include strictly the numbers without any reference to the tasters or the institutions they represent. She also questioned their ratings procedures. “Based on their scoring criteria, if a defect in an olive oil is found, all eight panelists must agree on what the nature of the defect is. If four claim the oil is rancid, while the remaining four deem it fusty, the AOCS scoring method marks the sample without a ‘main defect,’ it slips through the cracks, and it’s still deemed ‘extra virgin.’ ”
To Langstaff, “It just seems that at the AOCS they want to keep the recognition so elitist that hardly anybody can get in.”
It’s true, said Richard Cantrill, chief science officer at the AOCS, that his group is the only game in town besides the IOC that recognizes panels. And though the organizations differ in their focus and their operational structure, Cantrill said the bulk of the Society’s testing procedure for accrediting panels mimics those of the IOC, “rule for rule.”
Langstaff’s assertion that panel members are not being checked is not denied by Cantrill. “We’re trying to be able to recognize panels as being qualified to taste, but we actually don’t know if they’re sensory experts. The IOC has guidelines for a panel leader to follow in creating the group of eight and while we’re not insisting, we’re recommending that prospective panels follow the IOC rules.
To make the AOCS list, the testing process involves sending 16 samples to would-be-sanctioned panels. A defect may be noted, then a “score” is selected on a linear graph. The final word on the sample is then based not on the mean, but on the median of the results. That’s where Langstaff sees a problem.
Cantrill explained the logic behind the system: “If you have a panel where three say a sample is fusty, three call it musty, and the rest claim it’s rancid, depending on the linear score, you might get a situation that the median value is zero, and it gets through. Most oils that are rancid are clearly noted by all members immediately. It’s just that when there’s an impression that something is wrong, but they can’t agree on what. Scores that find oils to be a little bit off can fly through in the final grading.”
Cantrill admitted his group is less worried about whether a panel can spot if an oil is extra virgin or not. Instead, they are trying to take a more academic approach. “We want to know if these panels agree with each other. But it’s true that when something like 20 bodies of tasters around the world are testing the same sample, it’s going to tell us a lot about the oil as well.”
The AOCS seems self-aware on this scoring blip. Cantrill said at the recent AOCS quarterly meeting, the group discussed a possible adjustment to the testing form. “Perhaps an extra column that sums the actual defect.”
So which panels manage to get the prized AOCS nod? Cantrill agreed the process is strict. “One must have tested each of the 16 samples and submitted all results on the defects, plus a panel performance number generated from the a mathematical formula based on scores by the different individuals. We’re looking for less than ten or twenty percent variation. It’s a tight range when you’re asking individuals to function as a single machine,” he said in response to why so few get through. He said they also disqualify for any errors found on the forms.
The results for each group then get compared to the results of others. “If one says a sample is winey, but everybody else has a different assessment, that’s a bad day for them. Are they badly trained?”
The AOCS, for their part, doesn’t delve into the answer to that question but they do think, according to Cantrill, that some facets of the system might be tweaked so that a mildly defective oil doesn’t get through as extra virgin. “It would be nice to tighten up on letting those out,” he said.