Members of agricultural associations, olive oil producers and representatives of the Spanish Association of Municipalities of Olive Oil (AEMO) gathered in Jaén — the heart of Spanish olive country — for the signing of a manifesto supporting and defending tasting panels.
It is very easy to speak from the production sector because they do not market the olive oils and therefore do not assume any risk with the panel test.
Francisco Reyes, the head of the Jaén’s provincial government, signed the document, which is ultimately destined for the desk of Isabel García Tejerina, the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries, Food and Environment.
“We have had to respond to the demand of an important part of the olive oil production sector… in defense of the tasting panel.” Reyes said. “From the Provincial Council, we believe it is a fundamental instrument to continue bettering and defending the quality of olive oils.”
The manifesto has enjoyed widespread support throughout the world’s largest olive oil producing country but has also received pushback from exporters and trade associations. These two groups warn that in an increasingly analytical and data-driven world, legal insecurities surrounding tasting panels abound.
Among the organizations raising concerns about these legal insecurities are the National Association of Industrial Packers and Edible Oil Refiners (ANIERAC) and the Spanish Association of the Olive Oil Exporting Industry and Commerce (ASOLIVA). They argue that discrepancies between tasting panels from different countries harm the exporters’ profitability as well as the reputation of Spanish olive oil producers abroad.
The sensory analysis method applied to virgin olive oils is an indispensable tool for the classification of olive oils, which allows us to differentiate between categories, above physical-chemical analysis.
An audit conducted by PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC), one of the four largest auditing firms in the world, and commissioned by ANIERAC and ASOLIVA, found a 30-percent variability in the qualifications of extra virgin olive oils when tested by different tasting panels.
Another test conducted by PwC found that the same tasting panel tested the same sample of olive oil twice with different results. The sample was graded as virgin olive oil after the first tasting. When it was presented for the second time, it was graded as extra virgin olive oil.
“When the same sample of oil is sent at different times to the same or a different official panel or private laboratory there are changes in opinion which sometimes results in two different classifications for the same sample of oil,” the PwCs report said. “In some cases, the second sample sent received a better result than the first sample.”
The PwC report cited a disparity of sensorial criteria when tasting olive oils and an absence of uniform methodology as the major causes of these disparities. The auditing firm recommended eliminating tasting panels altogether and replacing them with chemical tests.
“As a result of the above [report], it is evident that the organoleptic tests currently established within the area of virgin and extra virgin olive oil represent an inappropriate quality control mechanism that violates the most elemental principles of the Spanish legal system, and gravely harms the public and the olive oil industry, frequently generating legal uncertainty and insecurity which, ultimately, discredit the sector and cause serious financial harm to the industry,” the firm starkly warned.
A few weeks ago four large olive oil producers in Spain wrote a letter to the Spanish government attempting to discredit the sensory methodology for olive oil evaluation. They feel it is too subjective and should be discontinued as part of the standard.
Even ANIERAC and ASOLIVA, who supported the PwC audit, found this conclusion to be a bit draconian.
“Just to tell you, the Spanish industry is not against the panel tests, it is against its current application and the consequences that arise for companies and for the extra virgin category from these tests,” Rafael Pico Lapuente, the director of ASOLIVA, said.
“The oil’s quality is always being questioned and producers are accused of fraud, when we consider that there is no such fraud.”
Drafters and supporters of the manifesto vehemently disagree with the technocratic view of olive oil classification held by PwC. They point out the methodologies of tasting panels were established by the International Olive Council (IOC) and enshrined within complementary European Union regulations.
“The sensory analysis method applied to virgin olive oils is an indispensable tool for the classification of olive oils, which allows us to differentiate between categories, above physical-chemical analysis,” its advocates wrote in the manifesto.
“This method has been in continuous evolution since its inception, and is still susceptible to improvements like any other… We do not share the problem of legal insecurity, for lack of consistent, objective and demonstrable arguments, and we ask the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries, Food and Environment to continue the application of this method.”
Pico Lapuente said olive oil producers are missing the larger economic picture in this argument. He argues that exporters’ profitability in international markets necessitates the need for global olive oil quality standards. He believes that producers doubling down on the manifesto, which fails to present any evidence for their case, will not sway the Ministry.
“It is very easy to speak from the production sector because they do not market the olive oils and therefore do not assume any risk with the panel test,” he said. “On the other hand, we present evidence of legal insecurity, through the aforementioned reports, but the producing sector does not present any evidence to support its opinion and only make value judgments.”
However, Pico Lapuente sees the meeting of the IOC Advisory Committee later this month as a way to ease the tensions and come up with a solution that protects exporters and validates producers.
The committee has already come up with six proposals to help parse the divide between these two camps, including the harmonization of tasting panels and allowing IOC accredited laboratory judgments of olive oil quality to remain unchallenged for 12 months.
Rather than pick sides, the committee believes ancient traditions and modern technology can be happily married as they already are in so many Spanish olive groves and mills.
“The working group recognizes the importance of the organoleptic assessment method for the characterization and classification of virgin olive oils,” the committee said.
“The IOC and its member countries should step up their efforts and pursue research to identify methods of chemical analysis that offer professionals improved legal certainty and can be used to supplement organoleptic assessment.”