Opinions

Paul Vossen: Olive Oil Taste Panels Are Not The Problem

Feb. 1, 2011
By Paul Vossen

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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. Perhaps it is that pro­duc­ers of lower grade oil just want to label it as a higher grade oil (some­thing that it really is not) and reap the ben­e­fit of sell­ing it at a higher price.  So when it gets iden­ti­fied for what it really is, the clas­si­fi­ca­tion process itself comes into ques­tion.

If the pro­duc­ers do not trust the accu­racy of the taste panel process, claim­ing it is too sub­jec­tive, then test it.  This could easily be done by sub­ject­ing an estab­lished (offi­cial IOC) taste panel to a sci­en­tific test in public with all of the sup­port­ers and crit­ics present.  Invite the media and sev­eral inde­pen­dent observers to see the evi­dence for them­selves.  In other words, set up an exper­i­ment where sev­eral oils are eval­u­ated by a panel and record the results.  Duplicate oils can be given to see if the tasters can score the oils the same each time.  The panel must be able to pro­vide sta­tis­ti­cally valid results or else the crit­ics of the system are cor­rect — it really is too sub­jec­tive.  But if the panel can rate the oils accu­rately and on a con­sis­tent basis, then it is not sub­jec­tive.

I do not believe there is a crit­i­cism of the lab­o­ra­tory analy­sis por­tion of the market grade eval­u­a­tion process, only the sen­sory part.  Perhaps this is because the lab­o­ra­tory stan­dards are set so low almost any oil passes.  For exam­ple, the stan­dard for free fatty acid for extra virgin grade is 0.8% when we can easily make oils below 0.3%.  It is also due to the fact that­lab­o­ra­tory instru­ments can be cal­i­brated and tested for accu­racy and con­sis­tency. This is done by send­ing the lab­o­ra­to­ries blind sam­ples and com­par­ing the results to a known stan­dard.  Recognized lab­o­ra­to­ries have their equip­ment and processes tested on a reg­u­lar basis to make sure that their results are accu­rate (come within the sta­tis­ti­cally accepted vari­abil­ity).

Most people do not know, how­ever, that taste panels also are tested reg­u­larly for accu­racy and con­sis­tency.  The panels are sent blind sam­ples and they must accu­rately rate the oils by market grade and iden­tify the degree (numer­i­cal value) of each impor­tant attribute both pos­i­tive (fruiti­ness) and neg­a­tive (iden­ti­fy­ing the most promi­nent defect).  These taste panels meet on a reg­u­lar basis to train and main­tain their accu­racy.  Again, they are not per­fect, but must be accu­rate within the estab­lished sta­tis­ti­cal guide­lines.

In order to be called extra virgin an oil only has to be free of defects and have some fruiti­ness.  If this stan­dard is too high, then lobby to change the stan­dard.  In my opin­ion, if this is done it will only fur­ther erode the sig­nif­i­cance of the term extra virgin.  Worldwide pro­duc­ers of high qual­ity fresh oil are begin­ning to call it “super pre­mium”, or “beyond extra virgin”. In Australia they have even pro­posed to raise the stan­dard.

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Different grades of olive oil cer­tainly exist.  In my opin­ion, pro­duc­ers of fresh oil from high qual­ity fruit should be the only ones rewarded with a higher price and the des­ig­na­tion of extra virgin, for sev­eral rea­sons:

  • Some defects such as ran­cid­ity are known to be harm­ful to human health — others such as muddy sed­i­ment are poten­tially harm­ful.
  • Fraudulent mixes of extra virgin oil with refined oils, or sol­vent extracted pomace oils, or sol­vent extracted seed oils (peanut, soy, sun­flower, corn,
    canola, etc.) are also poten­tially harm­ful to people because of the sol­vent residues or to those who have aller­gies to these oils.  If these oils are labeled as extra virgin olive oil, the con­sumer is being cheated in paying more for lower valued prod­ucts.
  • Anybody can make lower grade oils.  Its easy. Just har­vest the fruit from the ground, do not hurry in get­ting it to the mill, let it sit in a pile or in bags and fer­ment and rot, press it with mats, run it through dirty equip­ment at a high tem­per­a­ture, or store it in dirty tanks.  This is still being done and unfor­tu­nately more often than the indus­try would like to have the public know.  Some of these easy to make oils are greatly appre­ci­ated by con­sumers, because they have become used to them over sev­eral gen­er­a­tions and know no better.  This is not a prob­lem, just charge a lower price, after all they cost less to pro­duce and cer­tainly don’t label them as extra virgin.
  • Nobody can win the race to the bottom.  The cur­rent predica­ment we are in is because most pro­duc­ers and cer­tainly the great­est por­tion of the world’s volume is com­pet­ing to be the lowest cost prod­uct.  It becomes tempt­ing to add a per­cent­age of seed oil or refined oil at one-fourth the cost to at least make some profit — and most con­sumers can’t taste the dif­fer­ence anyway.  The end result is a sea of cheap, low qual­ity oil that every­one wants to claim is extra virgin.  Much of it is being sold below its cost of pro­duc­tion and can only exist due to a sub­sidy.  This unfor­tu­nately lowers the over­all image of olive oil as some­thing more expen­sive than other oils, but not really worth it.
  • Fresh, high qual­ity, olive oil with no defects should be rec­og­nized for what it really is — as a very healthy prod­uct and a flavor enhancer for food.
  • What is the alter­na­tive?  Just let every pro­ducer put on the label what­ever they want and let the con­sumer choose in the free market?  Isn’t that how we got into our cur­rent finan­cial crisis?
  • Sensory sci­ence and the use of a trained taste panel has been and is being used today exten­sively in the food indus­try for most food prod­ucts (coffee, beer, cheese, wine, choco­late, fresh pro­duce, etc.).  The results of these taste panel eval­u­a­tions has been very effec­tive in help­ing improve the qual­ity of prod­ucts being eval­u­ated (see the California Agriculture Journal arti­cle on the UC Cooperative Extension Taste Panel).