A textbook-long report by the United States International Trade Commission, Olive Oil: Conditions of Competition between U.S. and Major Foreign Supplier Industries, made for interesting weekend reading for many throughout the world whose livelihoods are synchronized by olive harvests and could be impacted to some degree by the actions the report could spur.
The document, which was prepared at the request of the U.S. House Ways and Means Committee, examines the complex global olive oil industry, and the conditions confronting American olive oil producers who are relative newcomers to an ancient trade with big stakes.
The major findings of the investigation were familiar to those in the olive oil business and readers of this publication: “extra virgin” olive oil often isn’t; enforcement of current standards is nonexistent; stiffer standards would help quality producers; EU subsidies suppress prices; most consumers know nothing about olive oil.
Backing them up is a USITC investigation, which cost an average of $2 million, courtesy of American taxpayers, and perhaps the most thorough accounting of the global olive oil trade ever in one place. Answering Congress’ request that it provide hard data, the report is a treasure trove of facts and figures that will be cited as evidence in formal complaints and trade actions some experts say could be coming next.
The report documents, and gives support to, the complaints aired by New World producers on four continents weary of competing with imports on a lopsided field. And while the situation has been reported for years around the world, this time it has the attention of the United States Congress.
Immediate reactions to the report within the olive oil industry were muted as many worked their way through the 282-page document and were not yet ready to comment, while others shrugged at the longstanding realities of the international trade laid bare by investigators, and didn’t find much to add.
After all, it would be hard to dispute the effect European subsidies have on global prices, or that much of the olive oil sold at retail is mislabeled at the point of purchase. No one is stepping up today to argue, for example, that the enforcement of standards has been adequate, or that no better tests exist for authenticity than the current international norms.
“It looks like the report largely corroborates the U.S. industry’s view of what’s happening,” Gregg Kelley, CEO of California Olive Ranch, said Friday. “We’re hopeful that this serves as an impetus to action.”
The recently-formed American Olive Oil Producers Association waited for the report last week with its finger on the “send” button of a victory-lap press release that found plenty in the document to its liking. On the East Coast, the North American Olive Oil Association, representing the largest importers, found a way to conclude “the report’s calls to enforce industry standards and educate consumers are consistent with the long-standing mission of the NAOOA.”
The International Olive Council was not making any comments yet on the report, which referred to the Madrid-based organization nearly 300 times.
Paul Miller, who led the successful drive to adopt new standards in Australia as president of the Australian Olive Association, said he was grateful for the comprehensive analysis. “To me the report underscores the global nature of the problems facing the industry and provides context for what must be a global effort to overcome them. Hopefully the time has come for effective cooperation.”
Alexandra Devarenne, an industry consultant in California, was pleased investigators recognized such “differentiated segments” in the olive oil market. “It shows that the pursuit of quality and uniqueness is an important strategy, and it’s good news for all quality producers that discerning consumers are focusing on flavor, origin and other differentiating characteristics,” said Devarenne.
Clear to just about anyone was that there will be changes coming to the business of providing olive oils for the increasingly health- and quality-conscious consumers in the world’s largest market.