`Five Years Later, UC Davis Report Still Sends Shockwaves

N. America

Five Years Later, UC Davis Report Still Sends Shockwaves

Jul. 14, 2015
Olive Oil Times Staff

Recent News

Five years ago today, the Uni­ver­sity of Cal­i­for­nia at Davis Olive Cen­ter released its report on a study of the qual­ity of olive oils in some of the region’s super­mar­kets. The bomb­shell report would prove to be a game changer, cited count­less times to illus­trate the exploits of unscrupu­lous pro­duc­ers.

JULY 14, 2010: Report: Most Imported Extra Vir­gin Olive Oils Aren’t Extra Vir­gin

The study, which was funded in part by Cal­i­for­nia pro­duc­ers, was small in scale but it packed a big punch: 69 per­cent of imported olive oils labeled as extra vir­gin,” the report pro­claimed, failed the IOC sen­sory stan­dard.” In other words, most imported extra vir­gin olive oils were not extra vir­gin at all.

That sim­ple state­ment would prove to be irre­sistible to the main­stream press and the Davis report has been quoted, and mis­quoted, ever since.

The doc­u­ment became mate­r­ial evi­dence in class action law­suits and trade com­mis­sion hear­ings. It would be the ral­ly­ing cry for an effort to estab­lish a mar­ket­ing order, a bid to impose import con­trols in the fed­eral farm bill, the estab­lish­ment of a Cal­i­for­nia olive oil com­mis­sion and, most recently, the adop­tion of new qual­ity stan­dards in Cal­i­for­nia.

Advertisement

It seemed news­wor­thy at the time,” said Dan Flynn the exec­u­tive direc­tor of the UC Davis Olive Cen­ter, but I did­n’t really have any sense of how big it would become and that it would rever­ber­ate for as long as it has.” Over­whelmed by the response to the report, Flynn heard over one thou­sand news out­lets had picked up the story within days of its release. It was my intro­duc­tion to the mod­ern era and how news spreads,” said Flynn.

Despite such a response, the study and its meth­ods were not with­out crit­i­cism, but Flynn unapolo­get­i­cally stands behind the report. We were shin­ing a light on a prob­lem that was out there,” he said. After five years and all that has hap­pened, I feel good about what we did.”

A Google search reveals just how often the Olive Cen­ter’s report has been cited over the years, but no cita­tion was as high-pro­file, and inac­cu­rate, as the one in an infa­mous New York Times info­graphic that pro­claimed 69 per­cent of all imported olive oils to be doc­tored.” While the Times even­tu­ally cor­rected the arti­cle, the dam­age had been done and more accu­sa­tions flew back and forth across the Atlantic.

Olive oil pro­duc­ers every­where were jus­ti­fi­ably shocked by how effec­tive the Davis report could be in rais­ing sus­pi­cion of olive oil in all its forms. Con­sumer mag­a­zines and advo­cacy groups around the world began con­duct­ing their own often pseudo-sci­en­tific qual­ity tests that impli­cated cer­tain oils, but also served to cast a crooked pall over the olive oil busi­ness and every­one in it.

Mis­in­for­ma­tion grew ram­pant and every­one wanted to know if the olive oil in their kitchen was good or not. Cap­i­tal­iz­ing on the con­fu­sion, the pop­u­lar tele­vi­sion advice guru Dr. Oz told his 3 mil­lion view­ers that, to check if oil was extra vir­gin, we sim­ply had to put it in the refrig­er­a­tor to see if it gelled — a method Oz said served him well but, as it turns out, has no basis in fact.

Since the Davis report, pro­duc­ers on both sides of the ensu­ing debate have inten­si­fied efforts to improve the qual­ity of their prod­ucts and dis­tin­guish brands through des­ig­na­tions of ori­gin, com­pe­ti­tion awards and qual­ity seals. Slowly, peo­ple have returned to talk­ing about the health ben­e­fits of olive oil again, and how it ele­vates the tastes of dishes.

Last month, how­ever, the group rep­re­sent­ing many of the olive oil importers who were the tar­gets of the 2010 study shot back with a report of their own that, they said, revealed the inad­e­quacy of the new Cal­i­for­nia stan­dards. Crit­ics call that report deeply flawed, and the debate lives on.

Related News