Spanish food giant Deoleo wants radical changes to the quality criteria and allowed category names and marketing claims for olive oil.

The company, which is investing strongly in emerging markets as sales slump in mature ones, says current terms such as ‘extra virgin’, ‘virgin’ and ‘refined’ olive oil should be replaced with words meaning more to consumers.

And it says quality assessment should go “far beyond the simplistic sensory method or physical and chemical analysis.”

Deoleo devoted a section of its latest annual report to the issue, saying it might be “somewhat controversial…but the ensuing debate will help to construct the future of our sector.”

Call for move away from “technical parameters”

Under “Customers as demanders of quality,” the Madrid-based company said the concept of quality “must shift from technical parameters to subjective values based on the opinions of those who buy our products.”

To develop new markets beyond the European culinary tradition, previous definitions of quality formed in the Mediterranean region needed to be rethought.

“The inflexibility of present-day laws and regulations prevents the olive oil sector from expressing different product qualities with appropriate naming, since the current classification has been drawn up from the point of view of technical features and properties, not that of quality as it is perceived by consumers.”

Consumers in new olive oil markets were accustomed to odorless, colorless oils and fats “which barely affect the taste of the food and are used merely to help in the culinary processes,” it said. “In cooking oils used for frying we should perhaps talk about their stability, smoke point, sensory contribution to the food; in oils used for dressings, their sensory profile is probably more important (green fruit, ripe fruit, harmony, balance, etc.).”

“Torpid legal framework”

On the naming of products, Deoleo said it should be possible to give each oil “an adequate name that reflects what is actually being sold and will not mislead consumers.”

Olive oil regulations should allow the sector “to use naming and marketing tools that go hand-in-hand with any consumer product.”

Consumers needed new flavors, textures and formats meeting their real needs, it said. “None of this is possible today within the torpid legal framework,” it said.

Current system “prevents segmentation”

Asked what new names were proposed, a Deoleo spokesman told Olive Oil Times the company was still drafting new terms and did not want to release details yet. Contact had been made with Spain’s Ministry of Agriculture on the issue but the International Olive Council would have the final word on any proposal, he said.

“The traditional categories of ‘virgin’, ‘extra virgin’ and ‘refined’ olive oil would be superceded under this new approach, which seeks to adapt the nomenclature to the actual use of a product and to consumer expectations, not only to organoleptic (and chemical) characteristics.”

The current system prevented product segmentation that could be useful for consumers. Deoleo would like more leeway to highlight olive oil’s health properties, such as its content of oleic acid, vitamins and polyphenols, or its different uses, such as for frying, seasoning or grilling.

“It’s about introducing more flexibility into olive oil regulations…so they allow different types of olive oil to be offered in each market,” he said.

In 2011, Deoleo (under its former name SOS Group) was among parties that responded during consultation on a proposed olive oil standard for Australia and New Zealand.

Its objections to the standard included that the it would act as a trade barrier for imported oils, partly because of “naming the categories differently than the rest of the world so that importers must make specific changes to the labeling.”

Australian urges caution

Asked for her reaction to Deoleo’s proposal, Australian Olive Association CEO Lisa Rowntree said the idea of helping consumers connect to the product was a good one, “but this tactic must not be used to enable unscrupulous marketers to trick unsuspecting consumers into buying a particular product when they are not.”

“For years chemically refined oil has been labeled as ‘pure’ and ‘light’ in Australia, tricking consumers into thinking they are getting a ‘low calorie’ oil, and ‘pure’ in most places, means ‘the best’, so to put the words ‘pure’ on an oil that is bleached and deodorized is just plain deceptive.

“Until the industry can start to play honestly and fairly my worry would be that these proposed ‘flowery’ marketing terms and ideas will just become another way to ensure that low grade oils make their way into the kitchens of unsuspecting consumers,” Rowntree said.

Deoleo opened a sales office in China earlier this year and plans to soon open others in Malaysia, Colombia and India.

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