By Alexandra Kicenik Devarenne
Olive Oil Times Contributor | Reporting from Sonoma County, California
Free-lance journalist Tom Mueller spoke Wednesday afternoon to an audience of 85 people at a University of California Davis event hosted by the UC Davis Olive Center. His 2007 article in New Yorker magazine, Slippery Business, was an exposé of a dark side of the international olive oil industry. His investigation of adulteration and unethical practices helped to advance the cause of advocates of olive oil standards reform in the US. Mueller, an American who lives in Italy, was in California to do research on the olive oil industry for his upcoming book; described as a cultural, industrial and culinary history of olive oil, the book is due out next November.
Mueller’s audience included California olive oil producers and industry supporters as well as members of the UC Davis community. UC Davis Professor Ed Frankel, one of the world’s leading authorities on lipid oxidation, who has recently announced his retirement, joined the gathering. There was also a panel discussion with industry notables Mike Bradley (President, Veronica Foods), Bill Briwa (Chef-Instructor, Culinary Institute of America), Dan Flynn (Executive Director, The UCD Olive Center), Bruce Golino (President, Santa Cruz Olive Nursery), Gregg Kelley (President, California Olive Ranch), Ed Stolman (Founding Partner, The Olive Press) and Liz Tagami (President, Tagami International).
When he was researching his New Yorker article, Mr. Mueller was struck by three key themes in the world of olive oil. The first is the continuing relationship of olive oil and crime. The history of olive oil fraud is as old as the story of olive oil itself. Regarding labeling law, he said, “The label needs to tell you something reliable about what is in the bottle—as it does with wine, where the people who enforce the laws carry guns.” He pointed out that there was stricter attention to enforcement of olive oil laws in Ancient Rome than there is today; ancient amphorae bore not just the name of the producer, but the names and seals of the multiple inspectors. Mueller reported that the FDA has said it is unable to enforce olive oil quality standards because olive oil is not making people sick.
The second theme is the resonance of olive oil throughout history. He recounted a revelation of the profound importance of olive oil in the ancient Mediterranean while standing atop a 115 ft tall mound of broken oil amphorae called Monte Testaccio (Mount Potshard) in Rome. It was analogous to petroleum in today’s world, literally shaping the economic, military and social history of the world.
The third theme is the provincialism that surrounds olive oil. The production and use of olive oil tends to be profoundly bound, even suffocated, by tradition. Where Mueller’s neighbor in Liguria follows modern advances in his wine making, he continues to produce his olive oil exactly as his grandfather did. “There is something about olive oil that makes people irrational,” said Mueller.
Olive oil is associated with transformation in the church; from conversion to extreme unction it is a catalyst for change. Mueller sees this as something the New World olive oil industry is well positioned to do: effect change. The “can-do” attitude and freedom from the weight of tradition can be a big advantage, encouraging innovation and real progress.
He cautioned against falling into the trap of pernicious provincialism, lack of transparency and animosity that burdens the Mediterranean olive oil industry. During the panel discussion, Gregg Kelley pointed to the importance of the good quality, affordable olive oil produced by the super-high-density system in California as the first step in introducing people to world of real extra virgin olive oil. Ed Stolman of The Olive Press underlined this by emphasizing that the small artisan producer is not a competitor but a complement to the large-scale producer. In a message that was echoed during the panel discussion, Mueller said, “Whatever advances the cause of excellent olive oil is good for all ethical producers, all around the world.”
Photos: A. Kicenik