By Lori Zanteson
Olive Oil Times Contributor | Reporting from Los Angeles
In its first attempt at accreditation the UC Davis Olive Oil Sensory Laboratory satisfied the requirements set forth by the International Olive Council (IOC), earning official certification for its taste panel. For the first time in several years, the United States has an IOC accredited panel, making the UC Davis Olive Oil Lab an important resource for producers, retailers and importers in the assessment of olive oil quality.
The process of accreditation for undertaking the sensory analysis of virgin olive oils according to the IOC’s methods is carried out each year. Panels worldwide enter the process for first-time accreditation and for the annual renewal of prior accreditation. Of the very scrutinizing process, Dan Flynn, Executive Director of the UC Davis Olive Center, says “We had a leg up, we started with a very good group of people.”
The screening and training for potential panel members of Davis’s lab, led by Dr. Jean-Xavier Guinard, began in 2009. Panel members, some who have been involved with olive oil for years, also received training from Paul Vossen, well known expert in olive oil processing and sensory analysis, as well as by the panel operated by the California Olive Oil Council. In just one year from the first screening session, 19 panelists and 12 apprentices were chosen, trained, and have honed their tasting skills to achieve a respected industry position. Tastings currently happen about once a week with 8-12 members on a panel per session. Next year, the panel will provide a fee-based service.
The sensory panel, explains Flynn, has three roles. The first is to provide certification of olive oil sent in by producers, retailers, and importers. Oils are analyzed based on the IOC’s official scorecard which looks at fruitiness, bitterness, pungency and defects. Extra virgin certification allows no defects. With certification in place, the panel expands on the information given on the scorecard to provide a more detailed explanation of the olive oil analysis. This gives the oil’s provider a deeper look at its positive aspects. While the scorecard rates oil on fruitiness, this next phase delves into the specific apple or tropical notes, for example, helping to perpetuate the features of quality oils. Research is a very important role, according to Flynn, “because the leader of the panel is a
well-regarded sensory panelist.” The panel’s research will provide sound analysis of olive oil produced in California which will hopefully lead toward the identification of what Flynn calls a “California-style” extra virgin olive oil.
Those in California’s olive oil industry definitely stand to benefit from the UC Davis Olive Oil Lab accreditation. California’s olive oil industry now has a panel in place to analyze the quality of olive oil in the US, making the highly useful process much easier and certainly more convenient. Consumers stand to benefit from this accreditation as well. It will continue to push consumer education forward, expanding awareness of quality oils and extra virgin certification. These combined benefits offer great potential for the panel’s work. At its inception three years ago the Olive Center, part of the Robert Mondavi Institute for Wine and Food Science, had a vision to do for table olives and olive oil what the institute did for wine. “This,” says Flynn, “is another step in that direction.”