With suspicion — that’s the way the olive oil world here in Italy is viewing the recent and controversial University of California, Davis Olive Center report. The study, performed in conjunction with the Australian Oils Research Laboratory, examined mass-market and store brand extra virgin olive oils, and those of California producers. Most Italian and imported olive oils failed sensory and chemical tests, while nearly all California samples passed. The study is seen as a way of making a market for California olive oil, and protectionist in spirit. That the research was financed by the California Olive Oil Council and two of the studied California brands, is seen as particularly telling.
The Italian press has had little coverage of the study. Il Salvagente, a consumer weekly, and Teatro Naturale, an online publication focusing on oil and wine, each ran a piece on the UC Study and discussed the validity of the tests, and both opined that the lopsided study favored California-produced extra virgin olive oil. For this piece, Colavita, Filippo Berio, Bertolli and Carapelli were all contacted for their views of the UC Davis study. Bertolli and Carapelli, historically Italian companies, are now owned by Grupo SOS, a Spanish company. By press time, only Colavita agreed to answer our questions regarding the study.
Enrico Colavita, who heads up the Colavita export office and operations in Campobasso, said via phone they had thought of releasing a statement on the UC Study, but decided against it since “it could produce even more confusion.” Asked about the general idea of testing extra virgin olive oil, he told Olive Oil Times that he welcomed testing, “Yes, we are in favor of testing, testing where the standards are agreed upon internationally, and also the methodology.” After a brief conversation and a couple of days, the writer was invited to the company’s Pomezia plant, in order to discuss the UC Davis Study and to view their facility. It is here that they package their extra virgin olive oil. The company is 24 kilometers (15 miles) from Rome, on the Via Laurentina, a southward leading ancient Roman road. Pomezia is largely industrial.
Enrico Colavita, President and Leonardo Colavita, General Manager, are brothers and joint heads of the family firm. For generations the Colavitas produced olive oil in Molise’s Campobasso province. Leonardo says of their town, “Sant’ Elia Pianisi has 2,000 inhabitants, and at least 30% have Colavita as their last name.” Their father went into the packaging of olive oil, distinct from growing and pressing olives. Leonardo’s son Giovanni is President of Colavita USA, and lives in New York; Leonardo’s daughter Carla works in a role which sounds like Chief Financial Officer and is now in New York for four months, but is generally in Italy. Enrico’s son Andrea is Director of Sales; and his other son, Paolo, attends university in Rome, and will join the company after graduation. The company employs 60 people in Italy, and 70 in the US, what seem like very small numbers for such a high profile company. Colavita’s main product is extra virgin olive oil, which is sold in close to 70 countries, with 80% of their revenues coming from export. They don’t discuss sales in currency, preferring to say that their aim is to sell 15 millon liters a year. Last year, 2009, they didn’t reach that figure, but this year has made up for last.
The Colavita Center for Italian Food and Wine at The Culinary Institute of America, in Hyde Park, NY, as well as their sponsorship of athletes, mostly women, helps keep their profile high. Both Leonardo and Enrico are involved with associations to further, and raise the profile of the Italian food industry. The Colavitas are members of Confindustria, an interest group representing the manufacturing and service sectors. Federalimentare is Confindustria’s subgroup for the food industry and the group with which they work. Leonardo is a founder of The Association of the Italian Oil Industry–ASSITOL. He’s just come off four consecutive two-year terms as its president, the maximum by statute. Next year, after a year elapses, he says he’ll go back to being president.
In the UC Davis study, Colavita extra virgin olive oil was tested, resulting in one bottle passing, and two failing. After the publication of the study in July, Colavita analysts tested bottles from the same lots tested by UC Davis. Colavita is a test-happy company and keeps three samples from each lot it produces. Leonardo says that the sample room, dubbed “the sacristy,” is the most beautiful and important room in the whole company. The room is filled, floor to ceiling, with metal shelving, and samples for each lot are arranged by date. Leonardo says of the room “People like to talk about traceability, but this is the real traceability.” He also said that the police tasked to inspect the food industry are amazed by the room when they come for inspections. One policeman said to Leonardo, “Finally! Someone who works the way God wants us to work.”
They keep the samples to test how their products are faring with the passage of time, in case of a dispute, a recall, a “Tylenol event,” or something like the UC Davis study. After 30 months in the sacristy, samples are emptied into lampante oil bins. The company uses Julian dating (year, a number between 1 and 365 for the days in the year, and time), a common practice, to create lot numbers, and lots in the sample room are grouped by month of packaging.
They tested all of the lots used in the Davis study and found all to be extra virgin olive oil. One of the studied lots, the bottle purchased in Los Angeles, was one of the oldest, if not the very oldest sample tested by UC Davis. The Los Angeles bottle did not have a “best before end” date, but it had the lot number L0816208042 (Lot, year 2008, 162nd day of the year, and 8:42 in the morning) which means it was bottled June 11, 2008 — 21 months before it was tested by the Davis study. The oil in the 2008 bottle showed signs of age, but still passed their internal test. Colavita does not discount the possibility that the LA bottle was improperly stored, resulting in its failure. Since the beginning of 2010, the company has introduced a “best before end” date on US bottles. Retailers had been reluctant to include the date. The case cartons themselves always carried the “best before end” date.
The 2008 oil was in a clear bottle. In addition to the passage of time, elevated temperatures and light degrade extra virgin olive oil. Harsh supermarket lights often beam day and night. Bottling in dark glass helps preserve oil, and on this point Enrico Colavita said, “Even if consumers want to see the color of the olive oil, we are moving to all dark bottles.” Another bottle failed the UC Davis sensory and chemical tests. Because Colavita’s own tests were internal, Severino Spoladore, a quality control analyst, said they couldn’t be considered scientific, as they would be from an independent lab. Still, their internal tests help their peace of mind.
Colavita packages Rachael Ray All-Italian Extra Virgin Olive Oil. The UC Davis study also tested that olive oil, resulting in one passing and two failing. The Rachael Ray olive oils, like the Colavita brand, failed the UC Davis sensory and chemical tests. When Enrico Colavita said about the general idea of testing, “Yes, we are in favor of testing, testing where the standards are agreed upon internationally, and also the methodology.” he was sharing a view that the study was flawed, while expressing support for the International Olive Council statement on the study, which said as much.
The Pomezia plant, beyond packaging Colavita and Rachael Ray olive oils, packages Santa Sabina, a popular Lazio brand that the Colavitas bought, and Molivo, a brand they created. The oils range in grades and provenance. The DOP oils they buy from makers in Molise, Puglia, Sicily, Tuscany, and Umbria, and are kept here before shipment to clients. The Campobasso plant instead produces flavored oils and the company’s line of vegetables packed in olive oil. The Linden, NJ plant packages Colavita Canola-Olive Blended Oil, popular with US consumers.