Silly, crazy, likely to increase costs and waste, and a product of bureaucratic meddling – that’s how the European Union’s imminent ban on refillable olive oil bottles on restaurant tables has been described in media reports around the world.
The strong reaction to the move – also evident in the high number of reader comments under online articles – has come as a surprise to some in the southern European countries which voted in favor of the move and where olive oil consumption is high.
But in northern Europe the surprise was that Brussels had even contemplated the measure.
Move seen as incomprehensible, a burden
“With the euro crisis, a collapse in confidence in the EU, and a faltering economy, surely the (European) Commission has more important things to worry about than banning refillable olive oil bottles?” said Martin Callanan, a British Conservative Member of the European Parliament.
Meanwhile Germany’s Suddeutsche Zeitung newspaper called the plan the “silliest” since the “legendary curvy cucumber regulation.” Questions were also raised about whether other products, such as vinegar, would be next.
Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte said it was “incomprehensible”, an added burden for the hospitality sector and inspectorate, and bad for the environment, “because lots of glass is wasted.”
Fears about dipping bowls and small producers
Two other common concerns widely aired are whether it spells the end of olive oil dipping bowls on tables – the Commission says it doesn’t if other ingredients such as salt or herbs have been added – and the impact on restaurant supplies from small, local producers.
Even in crisis-ridden Spain, the world’s biggest olive oil producer and one of the fifteen countries which backed the move, restaurant owners have lamented they’ll no longer be able to simply buy their olive oil fresh from the mill in the usual five-liter bottles.
And small producers say they’ll be unable to afford bottling changes, such as to cater for smaller sizes.
The European Commission estimates that tamper-proof seals will add a cost of about three cents per 250ml bottle of olive oil, but it has not released details of its calculations.
Surprise over backlash
Rafael Sánchez de Puerta, president of the working group on olive oil of European farmer federation Copa-Cogeca, said the strong reaction against the measure had come as a surprise.
“Perhaps we haven’t explained it well because really it’s a simple measure that is positive for everyone.”
The traditional ‘aceiteras‘ found on restaurant tables in countries such as Spain and Italy are detrimental in many ways. Their shape exposes the oil to light over a large surface area and the oil is also regularly exposed to air- two natural enemies of olive oil. And the fact that they usually never run out – restaurants tend to keep topping them up from 5l bottles of olive oil – is also undesirable, he said.
“This is not about introducing single servings or having to provide a new bottle for each patron, it’s about providing a labeled – preferably dark glass – bottle, even if it partly empty,” he said.
“It’s a poor excuse to say this will increase either cost or waste as the impact in both cases would be negligible,” he said.
No problem with dipping bowls in Portugal
As for dipping bowls, Mariana Matos, General Secretary of the Casa do Azeite, Portugal’s Olive Oil Association, said her country had introduced such a law in 2005 and there had been no problem.
“What the restaurant has to do is serve the olive oil in front of the client, from an unrefillable bottle. That way, if the client wants to, they can find out if the oil is extra virgin, its origin and expiry date, all the information that must be on the label.”
“If the restaurant wants to add anything, such as herbs, balsamic vinegar or flor de sal – which is very popular in Portugal – then they can bring the bowl to the table with those ingredients in it and pour the olive oil at the table or present the ingredients separately.”
“That’s been our experience and it’s much more transparent for the client and much more respectful of olive oil, which is a noble product and usually not well treated in the food service sector,” Matos said.
The implementing regulation covering the move did not gain what’s called a qualified majority when voted on last week by an EU committee, but it did gain sufficient support for the Commission to be able to go ahead and adopt it anyway. However, it’s understood it can not ‘tweak’ the draft to clarify the measure – such as in relation to dipping bowls – but must publish it as is.
The ban on refillable bottles was flagged in the action plan for the olive oil sector, released last June by European Commissioner for Agriculture Dacian Cioloş and intended to give the ailing sector a boost while also reducing fraud.