`High Society: Chemists Recognize 9 Olive Oil Tasting Panels that Made the Grade - Olive Oil Times

High Society: Chemists Recognize 9 Olive Oil Tasting Panels that Made the Grade

By Wendy Logan
Aug. 24, 2015 10:56 UTC

The American Oil Chemists’ Society (AOCS) recently released a revised list of sen­sory pan­els rec­og­nized by the Urbana, Illinois-based orga­ni­za­tion for the eval­u­a­tion and grad­ing of olive oils. Just four pan­els were deemed wor­thy of full accred­i­ta­tion, while five achieved an hon­or­able men­tion and the rec­og­nized” des­ig­na­tion.

Among the accred­ited pan­els, one is in Italy, two are in Australia, and a fourth, Pompeian’s lab in Maryland, oper­ates for its own pur­poses and doesn’t solicit out­side sam­ples. The five rec­og­nized pan­els (in addi­tion to the accred­ited ones) include one in Japan, another in Greece, and three in California, though the UC Davis Olive Center tast­ing panel, rec­og­nized for the past sev­eral years, has dropped from the list.

AOCS Accredited Panels

Chemiservice (Italy)
Modern Olives Laboratory Services (Australia)
NSW Department of Primary Industry, Wagga Wagga (Australia)
Pompeian Inc. (United States)

AOCS Recognized Panels

Applied Sensory (United States)
California Olive Oil Council (United States)
Multichrome Lab (Greece)
Shozu Olive Research Institute (Japan)
University of California Cooperative Extension (United States)

Dan Flynn, exec­u­tive direc­tor at the Olive Center said dis­con­tin­u­ing the panel was a sim­ple busi­ness deci­sion. We were sub­si­diz­ing the pro­gram at $25,000 a year,” he said. We’re a self-funded cen­ter, and we were pulling money from other areas to pay for it. We just couldn’t afford it.”

To under­stand how the world of eval­u­at­ing and grad­ing olive oil func­tions, we must first look at the industry’s sta­tus quo. At the front of the room, there’s the International Olive Council (IOC), estab­lished under the United Nations in the 1950s. The inter­gov­ern­men­tal group’s role, as recently explained by Flynn, is to develop stan­dards to facil­i­tate the trade of olive oil around the world. Today, the European Union, as well as other olive- and olive oil-pro­duc­ing coun­tries, and even some non-pro­duc­ers, are mem­bers of the IOC and, accord­ing to Flynn, its mem­ber­ship rep­re­sents prob­a­bly more than 95 per­cent of the world’s olive oil pro­duc­tion.”

With its half-cen­tury in the game, the IOC has the first word on sen­sory and chem­i­cal eval­u­a­tion of olive oil in much of the world. There are 54 cer­ti­fied pan­els endorsed by the IOC. Not one of them is in the U.S.

Less fraught with con­tro­versy, more focused on pro­fi­ciency.- Dan Flynn, UC Davis Olive Center

As a mat­ter of pol­icy, the U.S. does not engage in orga­ni­za­tions of this nature and is not a mem­ber of the group. Despite efforts by the IOC to lure the United States into the fold, In Washington,” said Flynn, the mes­sage keeps com­ing back that the U.S. does not want to cede any of its juris­dic­tion over stan­dard-set­ting to a group of for­eign nations. Moreover, IOC vot­ing is based solely on pro­duc­tion and not on con­sump­tion so a vote on where to set a stan­dard is always going to be weighted toward those coun­tries with the high­est pro­duc­tion. From the U.S. per­spec­tive, this is dis­ad­van­ta­geous because though its con­sump­tion is high, American pro­duc­tion is low com­pared to the major pro­duc­ing coun­tries of the world. Even as mem­bers, given the way the sys­tem is cur­rently con­structed, the U.S would have very lit­tle influ­ence.”

Enter the AOCS, an orga­ni­za­tion of sci­en­tists from around the globe who study oils of all kinds. Their role is to develop meth­ods for eval­u­at­ing oil qual­ity and purity and their method­ol­ogy is per­haps more tech­ni­cally focused with less empha­sis on the sen­sory com­po­nent. It’s also less polit­i­cal, Flynn believes. Less fraught with con­tro­versy, more focused on pro­fi­ciency.”

The AOCS has only recently begun to get into the olive oil arena, a whole dif­fer­ent ani­mal from their usual sub­jects. Extra vir­gin olive oil is made like a fruit juice,” Flynn noted, whereas most of the oils the orga­ni­za­tion has stud­ied — canola, corn, soy­bean — are highly refined and processed.”

Sensory expert Sue Langstaff’s Applied Sensory LLC picked up where UC Davis left off, tak­ing over the Olive Center’s panel and its mem­ber­ship, and mak­ing the AOCS list of approved pan­els. But Langstaff isn’t as sure as Flynn that the AOCS process is less polit­i­cal or as con­sis­tent and above board as she’d pre­fer. She’s also con­cerned about the depth of the sen­sory knowl­edge at work among those tested for the des­ig­na­tions.

The whole thing is obfus­cated.- Sue Langstaff, Applied Sensory

This is good infor­ma­tion for the pub­lic to know,” she told Olive Oil Times. Because the whole thing is obfus­cated. No one is check­ing to see if the pan­els being tested by the AOCS are trained prop­erly.”

Though the basic cri­te­ria used by the AOCS are based on IOC pro­to­cols, Langstaff said, they are not fol­low­ing the IOC lead on data analy­sis. Langstaff wants to know, Who are these peo­ple being tested? How do we know if their train­ing and back­ground are con­sis­tent?”

Langstaff said results from the tests include strictly the num­bers with­out any ref­er­ence to the tasters or the insti­tu­tions they rep­re­sent. She also ques­tioned their rat­ings pro­ce­dures. Based on their scor­ing cri­te­ria, if a defect in an olive oil is found, all eight pan­elists must agree on what the nature of the defect is. If four claim the oil is ran­cid, while the remain­ing four deem it fusty, the AOCS scor­ing method marks the sam­ple with­out a main defect,’ it slips through the cracks, and it’s still deemed extra vir­gin.’ ”

To Langstaff, It just seems that at the AOCS they want to keep the recog­ni­tion so elit­ist that hardly any­body can get in.”

We actu­ally don’t know if they’re sen­sory experts.- Richard Cantrill, AOCS

It’s true, said Richard Cantrill, chief sci­ence offi­cer at the AOCS, that his group is the only game in town besides the IOC that rec­og­nizes pan­els. And though the orga­ni­za­tions dif­fer in their focus and their oper­a­tional struc­ture, Cantrill said the bulk of the Society’s test­ing pro­ce­dure for accred­it­ing pan­els mim­ics those of the IOC, rule for rule.”


Langstaff’s asser­tion that panel mem­bers are not being checked is not denied by Cantrill. We’re try­ing to be able to rec­og­nize pan­els as being qual­i­fied to taste, but we actu­ally don’t know if they’re sen­sory experts. The IOC has guide­lines for a panel leader to fol­low in cre­at­ing the group of eight and while we’re not insist­ing, we’re rec­om­mend­ing that prospec­tive pan­els fol­low the IOC rules.

To make the AOCS list, the test­ing process involves send­ing 16 sam­ples to would-be-sanc­tioned pan­els. A defect may be noted, then a score” is selected on a lin­ear graph. The final word on the sam­ple is then based not on the mean, but on the median of the results. That’s where Langstaff sees a prob­lem.

Cantrill explained the logic behind the sys­tem: If you have a panel where three say a sam­ple is fusty, three call it musty, and the rest claim it’s ran­cid, depend­ing on the lin­ear score, you might get a sit­u­a­tion that the median value is zero, and it gets through. Most oils that are ran­cid are clearly noted by all mem­bers imme­di­ately. It’s just that when there’s an impres­sion that some­thing is wrong, but they can’t agree on what. Scores that find oils to be a lit­tle bit off can fly through in the final grad­ing.”

Cantrill admit­ted his group is less wor­ried about whether a panel can spot if an oil is extra vir­gin or not. Instead, they are try­ing to take a more aca­d­e­mic approach. We want to know if these pan­els agree with each other. But it’s true that when some­thing like 20 bod­ies of tasters around the world are test­ing the same sam­ple, it’s going to tell us a lot about the oil as well.”

The AOCS seems self-aware on this scor­ing blip. Cantrill said at the recent AOCS quar­terly meet­ing, the group dis­cussed a pos­si­ble adjust­ment to the test­ing form. Perhaps an extra col­umn that sums the actual defect.”

So which pan­els man­age to get the prized AOCS nod? Cantrill agreed the process is strict. One must have tested each of the 16 sam­ples and sub­mit­ted all results on the defects, plus a panel per­for­mance num­ber gen­er­ated from the a math­e­mat­i­cal for­mula based on scores by the dif­fer­ent indi­vid­u­als. We’re look­ing for less than ten or twenty per­cent vari­a­tion. It’s a tight range when you’re ask­ing indi­vid­u­als to func­tion as a sin­gle machine,” he said in response to why so few get through. He said they also dis­qual­ify for any errors found on the forms.

The results for each group then get com­pared to the results of oth­ers. If one says a sam­ple is winey, but every­body else has a dif­fer­ent assess­ment, that’s a bad day for them. Are they badly trained?”

The AOCS, for their part, doesn’t delve into the answer to that ques­tion but they do think, accord­ing to Cantrill, that some facets of the sys­tem might be tweaked so that a mildly defec­tive oil doesn’t get through as extra vir­gin. It would be nice to tighten up on let­ting those out,” he said.


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