`Olive Oil Quality: Whither the US? - Olive Oil Times

Olive Oil Quality: Whither the US?

Feb. 17, 2012
Alexandra Kicenik Devarenne

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January 2012 is likely to be remem­bered as a water­shed month in the US olive oil indus­try. It seems that at long last, we can glimpse a light at the end of the tun­nel.

The cat­a­lyst for much of what hap­pened was unques­tion­ably Tom Mueller and his book Extra Virginity: The Sublime and Scandalous World of Olive Oil. Although his book tour started in December of last year, Tom’s pres­ence in California in January 2012 led to a num­ber of events being sched­uled. But Extra Virginity was just what brought the spot­light to bear on the scene, it was not the entire pic­ture. A num­ber of sep­a­rate threads relat­ing to olive oil qual­ity came together last month, projects and ini­tia­tives from many quar­ters, some many years in the mak­ing.

Much has been said and writ­ten about the Australian Olive Oil Standard and its impor­tance in the fight for mean­ing­ful olive oil qual­ity stan­dards. This atten­tion is well deserved; there is no doubt that this is the foun­da­tion upon which the US stan­dard will be built. The pres­i­dent of the Australian Olive Association, Paul Miller, was also in the US dur­ing January, and was an impor­tant par­tic­i­pant in these crit­i­cal events.

On January 19th a meet­ing was held at the Dixon Fairgrounds to dis­cuss a fed­eral mar­ket­ing order for olive oil which would col­lect a per-gal­lon assess­ment from grow­ers. At this meet­ing, many peo­ple got their first look at the draft pro­posal spear­headed by California Olive Ranch. The intent of the mar­ket­ing order is to put in place an olive oil stan­dard — based on the Australian stan­dard — that will impose a mean­ing­ful and enforce­able qual­ity stan­dard on US-made olive oil. The domes­tic stan­dard paves the way for uni­form qual­ity stan­dards on all olive oil traded in the United States.


Tom Rusert, Paul Miller, Tom Mueller, Deborah Rogers in Sacramento

The hope is, of course, that this would be the game changer, the level play­ing field that ALL hon­est olive oil pro­duc­ers are seek­ing. A steer­ing com­mit­tee has been formed, and the hard work of fig­ur­ing out the details has begun, with the objec­tive of hav­ing a pro­posal by June 1st.

There were also many edu­ca­tional and PR func­tions in January, again prompted pri­mar­ily by Tom Mueller’s pres­ence on his book tour. The Olive Center/Culinary Institute of America sem­i­nar on olive oil qual­ity was a par­tic­u­larly sig­nif­i­cant event, seek­ing as it did to edu­cate the peo­ple who make the deci­sions that influ­ence the deci­sions of oth­ers.

Williams Sonoma held a book sign­ing and olive oil tast­ing class at their flag­ship store in San Francisco that was unique for the con­nec­tion it made between the pro­duc­ers of hon­est excel­lent olive oil and the con­sumer. As each one of the great oils was tasted, we were able to intro­duce the pro­ducer. That pro­ducer — from France, California, Spain, Italy — stood up, and was applauded for his or her extra­or­di­nary achieve­ment. We also tasted a slightly fusty, ran­cid super­mar­ket oil for con­trast. It is sig­nif­i­cant that no pro­ducer could take credit for that olive oil; it con­tained olive oils from Spain, Italy, Greece, Tunisia and/or Turkey.” And who knows how many har­vest years were rep­re­sented in that bot­tle.


Alexandra Kicenik Devarenne and Tom Mueller

The road ahead seems to me more clearly marked than it has ever been. The fed­eral mar­ket­ing order is an essen­tial tool in clean­ing up the mess that is the cur­rent olive oil reg­u­la­tory envi­ron­ment. The fact that the process could take years makes it all the more urgent that we draft and sub­mit a pro­posal soon. There is a lot of work to do fig­ur­ing out the details, but there seems to be tremen­dous agree­ment in the domes­tic olive oil indus­try that we need to do some­thing about mis­la­beled (okay, bogus) extra vir­gin olive oil, and we need to do it now.

The high level of inter­est expressed by the Senate Subcommittee indi­cates that we have an issue that is extremely com­pelling once peo­ple learn about it. Another great devel­op­ment is the involve­ment of olive oil pro­duc­ers from Georgia and Texas in the mar­ket­ing order dis­cus­sion; we are now look­ing at the emer­gence of a US olive oil indus­try. The con­tin­u­ing drama play­ing out in Australia is also impor­tant as both an inspi­ra­tional and a cau­tion­ary tale. They have worked hard and done the right thing, but their domes­tic olive oil indus­try is under siege by the cheap imports and their hench­men. The US needs to move swiftly, deci­sively and in a uni­fied way.

The high level of inter­est in olive oil edu­ca­tion is also impor­tant, crit­i­cally impor­tant. Although we know that good stan­dards enforced with off-the-shelf test­ing are cru­cial, we can­not for­get that ulti­mately our fate as an indus­try will lie with the deci­sion of the con­sumer to buy our prod­uct. Imagine a world where poor qual­ity olive oil is still on the shelf, but accu­rately labeled as a lower grade and sold at a lower price. If the con­sumer doesn’t under­stand and embrace the value of real extra vir­gin olive oil — with the higher price tag that comes with it — they might still reach for the cheaper option. That is our long-term chal­lenge.

This arti­cle appeared on CalAthena.com and is reprinted here with per­mis­sion.

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