`European Olive Oil Producers Try New Label: Made in California - Olive Oil Times

European Olive Oil Producers Try New Label: Made in California

By Curtis Cord
Aug. 17, 2011 19:26 UTC

Often through legal loop­holes and sleight of hand pro­duc­ers and bot­tlers have for years man­aged to use three magic words that cause con­sumers to pay up to twice as much for a liter of olive oil.

So while the olive oil pric­ing cri­sis grinds through its fourth year and pro­duc­ers in Europe con­tinue to sell olive oil for less than it costs them to make, the aver­age price paid for extra vir­gin olive oil labelled Made in Italy” con­tin­ues its incred­i­ble climb (up 45 per­cent in a recent IOC report).

But sud­denly olive oil com­pa­nies in Italy and Spain and dis­trib­u­tors of European foods are intro­duc­ing olive oils with a sur­pris­ing new sell­ing point: Made in California.

Last month at the Fancy Food Show in Washington, the Italian olive oil pro­ducer Colavita launched olive oils made in California and Australia; Star Fine Foods, a divi­sion of Spain’s Borges Group, has intro­duced an Arbequina from California’s Central Valley; Zoe, an importer and dis­trib­u­tor of Mediterranean prod­ucts, is offer­ing a new California extra vir­gin, and other major European com­pa­nies are in the process of devel­op­ing their own California brands and pro­duc­tion facil­i­ties.

What’s going on?

Even if they are the new kids on the block, American and Australian olive oil pro­duc­ers have been play­ing hard­ball. They’ve under­writ­ten stud­ies crit­i­cal of imported oils, lob­bied for new stan­dards that make life harder for European pro­duc­ers and they’ve been all over the media to urge every­one to buy domes­tic.

But it’s not just in the New World where stud­ies and inves­ti­ga­tions have been high­light­ing qual­ity issues with Mediterranean brands. Media every­where seem to be pil­ing on with taste tests, reports of scan­dals and analy­ses of super­mar­ket olive oils made in Spain, Italy, Portugal and Tunisia.

California’s mostly small pro­duc­ers craft high qual­ity olive oils that have enjoyed grow­ing pop­u­lar­ity among con­sumers and EVOO com­pe­ti­tion judges alike, not to men­tion a clean record.

So now, some of the biggest olive oil com­pa­nies in the world are say­ing okay, we can do California, too.”

When asked about Colavita’s new launch, an exec­u­tive from a major California olive oil com­pany was fine with the idea, say­ing if an Italian com­pany wanted to spread the word about the high qual­ity of California olive oil, all the bet­ter for him (the exec­u­tive said his com­pany was not the one sup­ply­ing Colavita, for exam­ple, but said there were only a small num­ber of com­pa­nies of suf­fi­cient size to do so).

Another out­come of Big Oil’s California dreamin’ will be a higher pub­lic aware­ness that there are dif­fer­ences in olive oils, and that ori­gin mat­ters. That kind of added value might be what ulti­mately saves pro­duc­ers every­where.

But it also con­fuses mat­ters, and con­fu­sion has long been exploited by unscrupu­lous oper­a­tors. Even if an Italian pro­ducer, for exam­ple, has olives pressed into good oil in Modesto, California, what hap­pens between there and where it is con­sumed is still any­one’s guess.

In fact, what you hear most from Australian and Californian pro­duc­ers is not that their prod­ucts are bet­ter because they’re from Victoria or the Central Valley, but because they’re fresh and local — points that clearly res­onate with con­sumers these days.

But by the time Colavita ships EVOO from the Port of Oakland or Los Angeles, half-way around the world to its bot­tling plant near Rome, and back again to one of the 85 coun­tries where the brand is dis­trib­uted, the olive oil will have logged a lot of miles.

If European mega pro­duc­ers bring the same prac­tices to their California out­posts that got them in trou­ble in the first place, Made in California could become another watered-down ori­gin des­ig­na­tion.

The new prod­ucts under­score the chal­lenges of an indus­try under­go­ing sweep­ing changes, and the grow­ing oppor­tu­ni­ties in the world mar­ket when most con­sumers are only begin­ning to learn about olive oil and what it means for health and the enjoy­ment of foods.


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