Recently I reported on the debate in Greece over the implementation of EU labeling regulation 432/2012, which allows the following health claim on EVOO labels: “Olive oil polyphenols contribute to the protection of blood lipids from oxidative stress.” The claim may be used only for olive oil which contains at least 5 mg of hydroxytyrosol and its derivatives (e.g. oleuropein complex and tyrosol) per 20 gm of EVOO.
See more: Greece Flip-Flops on EVOO Labeling
This decision directly contradicted the negative statement made by Minister of Rural Development and Food, Athanasios Tsaftaris, in response to a question by MP George Kasapidis and other members of the Greek Parliament last May 2013 who declared: “Oleocanthal and oleacein cannot be used to make any health claims because they are not included in the EU Regulation 432/2012.” This rejection outraged the olive growers at the time whose EVOO tested very high for both compounds.

In December 2013, Aspasia Samona of EFET (Greek National Food Safety Agency) contradicted Tsaftaris’ statement. “Indeed oleocanthal and oleacein, being derivatives of hydroxytyrosol and tyrosol, can be used as the basis for substantiating the health claim allowed by EU Regulation 432/2012.”

In February 2014 and after receiving the official response by EFET, Kasapidis asked Tsaftaris to correct his statement on this issue and allow the EU health claim for EVOO to be implemented.

Athanasios Tsaftaris

In a recent phone interview, I was informed by a source at the Ministry of Rural Development and Food that it was a misunderstanding and that “Mr. Tsaftaris was not asked about oleocanthal and oleacein in regards to the EU regulation 432/2012.” And yet Mr. Tsaftaris’ response referenced the EU regulation on labeling and made it clear that oleocanthal and oleacein found in EVOO are not included in the EU regulation 432/2012 on labeling. Greeks did invent rational thought but we also invented sophistry or its modern day equivalent called: “spin.” I assumed this was a clever way of reversing their initial negative decision.

To my surprise I then received another letter from EFET which withdrew their previous official scientific opinion. “In regards of my previous letter confirming that indeed oleocanthal and oleacein being derivatives of hydroxytyrosol and tyrosol can be used as the basis for substantiating the health claim EU 432/2012, and after a recent contact with the EU we will have to wait for them to make the final decision. We will let you know when we receive an answer.”

This reporter had already submitted a question on this very issue to the EU seeking clarification following the response from Tsaftaris back in May, 2013. Last July I received an email informing me that since everyone was on summer vacation that it may take longer than usual to answer. Seven months later I am still waiting for their response.

The truth of the matter is that if the EU bureaucracy is asked what time it is, they will form a committee and let you know in a year what time it was six months ago. It is now obvious the flip-flopping on this issue in Greece stems from politics and not from science. The question is: Why?

The science is simple. The politics are murky.

Scientific fact is that hydroxytyrosol is not found in sufficient quantity to ever comply with the required 5mg per 20gm of EVOO. That is why the esteemed EFSA scientific panel included examples of its derivative forms, such as oleuropein complex, which is a soicoridoid, and tyrosol, which is a phenol. By giving examples of these two categories (soicoridoids and phenols) of polyphenols in the wording of the regulation they sought to include their derivative forms as well.

The reason is that if you add up all the hydroxytyrosol, oleuropein complex and tyrosol it will still not be sufficient to qualify with this health claim regulation. This is why the health claim is not worded in a specific manner such as: “Hydroxytyrosol, Oleuropein complex and tyrosol found in EVOO contribute to the protection of blood lipids from oxidative stress.”

To give you an example of how ludicrous this controversy has become in Greece, it would be like asking the EU for clarification on whether lettuce is a vegetable because they did not mention lettuce specifically when they stated eating vegetables is good for your health.

The EFSA decision which formed the basis of the labeling health claim was succinct: “On the basis of the data presented, the Panel concludes that a cause and effect relationship has been established between the consumption of olive oil polyphenols (standardized by the content of hydroxytyrosol and its derivatives) and protection of LDL particles from oxidative damage.”

You either believe the panel of scientists that wrote this decision are misinformed and should return all their PhDs because they wrote something that can never be implemented, or you see it exactly as a scientist would see it. Scientists like Aspasia Samona from EFET who are familiar with EVOO chemistry understand this includes two of the main polyphenols — oleocanthal and oleacein.

EFET is the national food safety agency and is directly under the the Ministry of Rural Development and Food, headed by Minister Tsaftaris. Perhaps this explains why she amended her official opinion after the recent follow up question was tabled in the Greek Parliament.

Tsaftaris has not shown up in the Greek parliament to officially respond to this latest request for clarification and we are eagerly awaiting his appearance and his official response. This reporter has already received the latest response from EFET and, barring any last minute change of heart by EFET or Mr. Tsaftaris, it is expected to assert the EU will have final say on the matter.

Since I have not heard back from Dr. Samona on why she changed her opinion, I can only surmise that Minister Tsaftaris and EFET are actively seeking to delay the implementation of the EU labeling regulation for Greek EVOO.

There are some major players that wish to keep things as they are. Major Greek, Italian and Spanish EVOO merchants’ interests are to keep the status quo of buying and selling the superior Greek EVOO at rock bottom prices in bulk and mixing it with their own. Others work hard to keep the focus on marketing Greek olive oil in sexy bottles and fancy lettering and not by the quality of its contents. We have many examples of olive growers getting becoming convinced, after the many seminars that have proliferated in the last two years in Greece, that the way to success is by putting their EVOO in sexy bottles with fancy logos and lettering. A few have succeeded but most are still deeper in debt.

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