California olive oil pro­duc­ers are watch­ing for the impact, if any, of the new USDA stan­dards for grades of olive oil which take effect today. The new stan­dards, a revi­sion of those that have been in place since 1948, will affect importers and domes­tic grow­ers and pro­duc­ers by ensur­ing con­for­mity with bench­marks com­monly accepted in the US and abroad. This day marks the cul­mi­na­tion of years of effort and a new begin­ning for California olive oil buy­ers and pro­duc­ers.

A pos­i­tive move for eth­i­cal pro­duc­ers who have had to com­pete with unscrupu­lous blenders- Patricia Darragh, COOC

The stan­dards, ini­ti­ated by the California Olive Oil Council (COOC), define the dif­fer­ent grades of olive oil, using terms that are con­sis­tent with those in the mar­ket­place and sim­i­lar to the def­i­n­i­tions used by the International Olive Council. They also pro­mote truth in label­ing by pro­vid­ing a basis for enforce­ment by state and fed­eral agen­cies if prod­ucts are mis­la­beled.

The COOC has worked hard and waited a long time for these stan­dards to go into effect. Patricia Darragh, Executive Director of the COOC, says they are “thrilled because we filed the peti­tion five years ago. It pro­vides buy­ers a com­mon lan­guage for oils,” Darragh con­tin­ues, “which is also a pos­i­tive move for eth­i­cal pro­duc­ers who have had to com­pete with unscrupu­lous blenders who charge a pre­mium for low and poor qual­ity oils.”

Patricia Darragh

The stan­dards, how­ever, are vol­un­tary which means pro­duc­ers choose whether to seek USDA cer­ti­fi­ca­tion for their prod­ucts. Regardless, Darragh believes “it’s a ter­rific first step,” and it pro­vides a legal ref­er­ence, but she adds, “we’d like enforce­ment at some point.” For the COOC, this day may mark the end of a sat­is­fy­ing effort to bring the stan­dards this far, but it’s still the infancy of what may be a long jour­ney toward com­pli­ance and enforce­ment.

Producers who wish to cer­tify their prod­uct as US Extra Virgin Olive Oil may now begin the process of hav­ing it inspected by the USDA.  A USDA inspec­tor will pull sam­ples to be sent to the USDA lab in Blakely, Georgia, where a tast­ing panel trained in sen­sory analy­sis tests them. The lab and its staff have been prepar­ing for this day for more than a year. Bottles of cer­ti­fied oils will bear the USDA cer­ti­fi­ca­tion seal.

Those in the indus­try aren’t the only ones involved in the ulti­mate suc­cess of the new stan­dards. The role of the con­sumer will be vital. Alexandra Kicenik Devarenne, Sonoma County-based olive oil con­sul­tant and edu­ca­tor, believes American con­sumers need to take on the respon­si­bil­ity of edu­cat­ing them­selves with the help of eth­i­cal pro­duc­ers and retail­ers. “The con­ver­sa­tion needs to include trans­parency,” explains Devarenne. “Where did those olives really come from? Who made this oil? When was it milled? Is this a bulk com­mod­ity traded only on the basis of price? Or is this from an eth­i­cal pro­ducer who cares about the qual­ity of their process and their prod­uct?”

Though the last­ing impact remains to be seen, the con­sen­sus among California grow­ers and pro­duc­ers is that the new stan­dards are a for­ward stride for those in the indus­try and con­sumers alike.   Consumers choose extra vir­gin olive oil expect­ing a pre­mium prod­uct renowned for its taste and health­ful prop­er­ties.  The new USDA seal will at least indi­cate that the olive oil has earned the grade.


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