The European Commission is considering banning olive oil cruets from restaurant tables and requiring that only tamper-proof, non-refillable bottles be used.

Portugal introduced such a law in 2005, Italy has just decided to follow suit and Spain says it will, too.

Olive Oil Times spoke to Mariana Matos, General Secretary of the Casa do Azeite, Portugal’s Olive Oil Association, about her country’s experience with this change.

What has been the impact, if any, on Portugal’s olive oil sector?

It has been very important for the image of olive oil. In the past I often had my meal ruined by inadvertently using really bad olive oil, until I stopped using the olive oil served in certain restaurants.

That kind of thing is very bad for olive oil’s image because it drives away consumers from what is a really good product and, from our point of view, it can only be prevented with this kind of legislation.

Another positive impact is that it opened up a new way of raising brand awareness. Brands have invested heavily in the design of their own cruets and now offer a range of olive oils, and also vinegar, in them. This maintains the tradition of having these items on the table to season food, but now accompanied by appropriate consumer information, such as the grade of the olive oil (extra virgin, virgin, etc.), its best-before date and origin.

All this is very important and teaches consumers to be more discerning.

Has there been any change in olive oil consumption in Portugal?

Yes, consumption of olive oil, especially extra virgin, has greatly increased, though not only due to this law. Five years ago, per capita consumption was about 6kg/year and now it’s more than 8kg/year, and rising.

Does non-refillable packaging increase environmental waste?

Well, the same applies to many products, and no one would consider returning to buying all their products in bulk. Furthermore, glass is mainly used and is cheaper and more efficient to recycle than other materials.

Companies have designed their own branded cruets, usually 250ml. This is the most suitable size as the bottle is not open too long, which would cause harmful oxidation reducing the olive oil quality, particularly in warm conditions, which is sometimes the case in restaurants.

Does the law apply to all olive oil used in the hospitality sector?

No, only to olive oils placed on tables for people to season their food. It doesn’t apply to restaurant kitchens where olive oil is used in meal preparation and packaging of up to 25l is allowed in Portugal.

What has been the feedback from restaurants?

Most of the restaurants that want to differentiate themselves according to quality and care with ingredients have welcomed it but any time an established practice is banned there is always some opposition.

The problems we currently have in Portugal are with the inspection authorities, who fail to effectively enforce the law.

What have you done to support the hospitality sector?

We’ve held hundreds of training events with restaurant owners, chefs and waiting staff to equip them with information about the product and the benefits of the new rules.

In such training we suggest restaurants treat olive oil a bit like wine. We encourage them to offer olive oil menus (like wine lists) so consumers can choose between different olive oils, from various regions and olive varieties.

That’s only possible if you have olive oil that’s appropriately bottled and labeled and with caps that prevent refilling, thus ensuring that what’s inside the bottle is the original content and has not been blended with any other oil. The latter can be a very tempting practice for restaurants but is very detrimental to the olive oil quality.

What’s your advice to countries considering a similar law?

That they seek the support of the restaurant and hospitality industry and clearly explain the benefits and differentiation that can result. Also, especially in the early stages, rather than a policing role, inspection authorities should play an educational one.

Are increased costs inevitable?

In Portugal, the entry into force of the law coincided with a significant fall in ex-mill prices, so actually the cost went down.

But according to our data, the change would result in an increased cost of about €0.05 for a 250ml bottle, mainly due to the cost difference between normal and non-refillable caps.

A 250ml bottle can serve about 10 people, which means an increased cost of about €0.005 per person for an average meal.

That seems to us very reasonable given all the advantages, such as in food hygiene and safety, higher quality, and consumer respect.

But with ex-mill prices now rising, should the law be passed, it would probably be unfairly blamed…

(A proposal on use of non-refillable bottles (one-way packaging) in the HORECA (hotel, restaurant and catering) sector was on the agenda for the January 16 meeting of the EC’s Management Committee for the Common Organisation of Agricultural Markets.)

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