Giovanni Zucchi,

president of Assitol, the Italian olive oil industry association

The Italian olive oil sector is living intense days.

Widely publicized accusations of fraud by famous brands of olive oil sold in Italian supermarkets revitalized a simmering debate on the guarantees of authenticity due to consumers and the adequate protections deserved by producers.

In an interview with Olive Oil Times, the president of Assitol, the Italian olive oil industry association, Giovanni Zucchi raised proposals to reduce elements in the assessment of olive oil and protect the rights of key players in the olive sector.

“The great work realized by the control bodies in recent years,” Zucchi said, “gave rise to a new awareness of consumers toward the oil industry and promoted an essential dialogue which improved the entire sector.”

But, he argued, incidents like the current fraud investigation unjustly cast a bad light over the entire Italian olive oil sector, “made up of professionals, small and large producers who strictly apply the rules and have contributed over the years to reach an extraordinary level of quality.”

The sensory analysis method, based on tasting performed by experts gathered in a panel group, in recent years has pushed the olive oil sector in the direction of a more accurate search for quality in addition to better tasting products.

Nevertheless, Zucchi said, while the organoleptic analysis represents an important tool in combating frauds, different panels often provide different judgments of the same sample, causing a clash between insiders and a wake of controversy in the media.

“Now we ask for a better application of the method,” Zucchi suggested, “updating it, making it more efficient and above all objective.”

Tasters are not allowed to see what they taste, while the panel leader can see which olive oil is under evaluation, Zucchi said, and this element can sometimes damage the required impartiality: “We propose to institute a blind test in the first tasting, followed by a second blind counter-test,” — suggestions that Assitol submitted to the Parliamentary Commission of Inquiry that has been investigating counterfeiting.

“Our second proposal regards the survey of chemical markers for the identification of organoleptic defects,” to confirm the results of tasting. He said Assitol is ready to finance a research project to identify undisputable chemical data. (Such research, of course, has been ongoing at the international level for years by the International Olive Council, Codex Alimentarius the American Oil Chemists’ Society and others).

“Regarding the sophistication (adulteration) of olive oil, we believe that today, in Italy, it can be considered residual,” Zucchi insisted. In the last months, of the 6,000 investigations of Ministry of Agriculture only two percent of cases resulted in a violation of law. “I believe that the fight against counterfeiting can be completed, revising the rules at the European level.”

Giovanni Zucchi suggested more improvements. “Monitoring the outflows of olive oil from mills will permit an adequate control of production and commercialization while a constant survey of the outflows from industrial factories will determine how much responsibility for deterioration in the quality of products can be attributed to a bad preservation by the distributors. A small defect in conservation, e.g. an excess of heat or light, can be enough for an olive oil to be no longer classified as extra virgin.”

Moreover, Assitol has proposed a revision of the categories of olive oil. “A review of the categories of olive oil can be the right approach to integrate the research of quality with the needs of the market. Extra virgin has, in fact, a prominent role, which marginalizes all other types of olive oil.”

New classifications should focus on the diversity of uses of the different olive oils: “Among EVOOs, we would consider two main products: cooking oil, with a lower price, and dressing oil, with a higher price. Virgin olive oil would be recommended for frying, while pomace olive oil would continue to lead the markets of countries that do not know nor use extra virgin olive oil.”

Rethinking the categories would make it necessary to review the parameters of cooking oil which would be broad, and those of seasoning olive oil, which would be more stringent, Zucchi explained.

“This revolution, however, needs a debate between institutions and producers and it is only a small tile of a great mosaic including also, for example, the reduction of acidity for extra virgin olive oil. But first of all the review of the panel test,” Zucchi concluded.

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