`EVOO and A-Rod: The Dawn of Olive Oil's Era of Testing - Olive Oil Times

EVOO and A-Rod: The Dawn of Olive Oil's Era of Testing

By Curtis Cord
Aug. 13, 2010 12:02 UTC

What an inter­est­ing cou­ple of weeks it’s been. On July 14th we received a late-night tip that the UC Davis Olive Center was going to release a report that would con­clude most of the extra vir­gin” olive oils we buy don’t deserve to be called that. We broke the story, post­ing the report hours before any­one else, and we’ve been bring­ing you devel­op­ments ever since. Allegations of fraud, prof­i­teer­ing and pub­lic rela­tions wars weren’t what we had in mind when we switched our server on a few months ago with the tag line olive oil news, reviews and dis­cus­sion,” but news hap­pens and olive oil is our beat.

We’re not too sur­prised that most olive oils from California super­mar­ket shelves failed to meet extra vir­gin guide­lines. Let’s say you’re the head of a bil­lion-euro olive oil con­glom­er­ate who has to answer to stock­hold­ers while pro­duc­ing ever-improv­ing yearly results. You pro­duce a cer­tain amount of high-qual­ity extra vir­gin olive oil for your bread-and-but­ter domes­tic cus­tomers, but imag­ine the pres­sure to lever­age that pro­duc­tion and your cen­tury-old brand name by water­ing the good stuff down with cheaper addi­tives and sell­ing it, ships full of it, to unsus­pect­ing pop­u­laces who don’t know the dif­fer­ence, and whose gov­ern­ments won’t enforce the weak laws in place. The United States is a cash-cow to unscrupu­lous olive oil pro­duc­ing giants who have long wor­ried more about brand-build­ing and dis­tri­b­u­tion net­works than the qual­ity of their olive oils.

So what’s chang­ing now? Emboldened by the recent revi­sions by the US Department of Agriculture which, at least, requires min­i­mum stan­dards for extra vir­gin label­ing, the California Olive Oil Council and their friends at the Davis Olive Center are point­ing out again that con­sumers in the States are get­ting ripped off. The small sam­pling reflected a study done on the cheap, but the inescapable real­ity remains, and we’d bet you could dupli­cate the tests in any num­ber of cash cow coun­tries around the world and get sim­i­lar results. Try it in China, India, Japan, Mexico, Canada, Germany.

Today a law­suit was announced in typ­i­cal American fash­ion, com­plete with a semi-celebrity chef plain­tiff and promi­nent restau­ra­teurs,” to put the squeeze on the big com­pa­nies that fill the olive oil shelves of places like Costco, Walmart and Albertson’s. Rachael Ray’s brand is among the named coun­ter­feits, although America’s culi­nary sweet­heart is more likely a hap­less vic­tim like the rest of us. Maybe this is what it needed to come to. Nothing hap­pens here with­out the buzz.

This isn’t what we want to write about in these pages (but we will). We’d rather talk about the peo­ple who make olive oil, how to use and enjoy it, its ancient cul­ture and its place in our mod­ern ways of life. And while we’d like to thank the University of California, the International Olive Council, North American Olive Oil Association, and the law firm of Callahan and Blaine for the tremen­dous growth in our read­er­ship, we’re also get­ting a ton of emails from read­ers who are con­fused and want some guid­ance. They’d like to know how to buy extra vir­gin olive oil with­out get­ting taken.

Frankly, we don’t have that prob­lem. The edi­to­r­ial office of Olive Oil Times receives more than its fair share of really great extra vir­gin olive oil from pro­duc­ers who must think if they send us free stuff we’ll write about them (and we just might). We’ll never have to buy another bot­tle again and if we could share this ridicu­lous stash with our read­ers, you know we would. But let me pre­tend for a minute that I had to actu­ally go out and buy a bot­tle of good olive oil from, say, a gro­cery store. Our Denise Johnson posted a piece recently about the slim pick­ings at a typ­i­cal New England super­mar­ket. She had a choice between some of the brands impli­cated in The Study” and pre­mium” extra vir­gin stuff from iden­ti­fied ori­gins that might have been pretty good, had it not been pre-Obama.

There’s a buzz­word going around in the high-end extra vir­gin olive oil pro­duc­ing world: trace­abil­ity. It’s pos­si­ble now to take the lot num­ber from some high-end bot­tles of EVOO, enter it on a web­site, and see com­pre­hen­sive infor­ma­tion about the oil includ­ing the har­vest date, vari­etals, and an aer­ial view of the par­cel the olives were picked from. In order to really know what you’re buy­ing, there needs to be a degree of trace­abil­ity. With a lot of food prod­ucts, includ­ing some that might even bear famous names like Rachael Ray, or Paul Newman, it might not mat­ter as much. With extra vir­gin olive oil, it does. Premium orange juice is $3 a quart. Premium olive juice can be ten times that. We need to know what year the olives were picked, and when the oil was bot­tled.

Alex A‑Rod” Rodriguez, one of the most gifted base­ball play­ers of all time, hit his 600th home run this week amid great fan­fare and ado­ra­tion. Few seemed to mind that he admit­ted to using steroids dur­ing a time that has been coined the Steroids Era.” Professional base­ball is now in what’s called the Era of Testing” dur­ing which, it’s widely believed, no one can get away with tak­ing per­for­mance-enhanc­ing drugs under such intense scrutiny.

I believe we’re enter­ing a sim­i­lar period in the olive oil busi­ness. Dan Flynn’s study and Dan Callahan’s law­suit will mark the begin­ning of the Era of Testing” for extra vir­gin olive oil and it won’t be long before we can be quite sure what we buy in the super­mar­ket is what it claims to be. Just like I knew A‑Rod’s homer resulted from his own nat­ural tal­ent (and a fast­ball high in the zone).

The olive oil pro­duc­ers and mar­keters impli­cated in the process will make it through, just like Alex Rodriguez, as long as they don’t blow it again. Consumers will soon be look­ing to labels for the free fatty acid (FFA) and per­ox­ide val­ues, har­vest dates and coun­tries of ori­gin. You’ll scan a bar code with your phone to see a Google map of the grove. Traceability.

In the mean­time, ask your gro­cer why there’s no date on the olive oil. Choose a super­mar­ket brand to use for cook­ing and con­sider pay­ing more for a pre­mium extra vir­gin made by an arti­san pro­ducer, from the coun­try of your choice, to use for every­thing else. If you enjoy extra vir­gin olive oil enough to read this post, you owe it to your­self to learn how to dis­tin­guish the good from the bad, the great from the not so great. You can take a course, pick up a book, read some of our posts on the sub­ject, or sim­ply prac­tice com­par­ing dif­fer­ent brands at home. You won’t be sorry.


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