`New Book Accuses Council of Holding Olive Oil to 'Lowest Denominator' - Olive Oil Times

New Book Accuses Council of Holding Olive Oil to 'Lowest Denominator'

Nov. 20, 2011
Curtis Cord

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In the new book, Extra Virginity: The Sublime and Scandalous World of Olive Oil, there’s plenty of blame to go around for the wide­spread dumb­ing down of olive oil qual­ity,” but author Tom Mueller reserves per­haps his most direct cas­ti­ga­tion for the International Olive Council.

Today this once-pro­gres­sive orga­ni­za­tion, which invented a rev­o­lu­tion­ary def­i­n­i­tion of olive oil qual­ity and spread the gospel of good oil in many parts of the world,” Mueller writes, all too often helps to hold extra vir­gin qual­ity to the low­est com­mon denom­i­na­tor, pro­tect­ing the inter­ests of Big Oil rather than help­ing pro­duc­ers of gen­uine extra vir­gins — much less con­sumers.”

The International Olive Council (IOC) is the inter­gov­ern­men­tal orga­ni­za­tion formed by the United Nations in 1959 to pro­vide finan­cial and tech­ni­cal assis­tance to its eigh­teen mem­ber coun­tries. The agency estab­lished ground­break­ing sci­en­tific taste tests and chem­i­cal lim­its for olive oil grades, set the rules of trade and guided the indus­try through decades of expan­sion.

In 2002, the agen­cy’s Executive Director, Fausto Luchetti, was accused by the European Union of mis­man­ag­ing IOC funds and resigned. Since then the resources allo­cated to the Council have been sharply reduced — even while global olive oil pro­duc­tion has soared to 3 mil­lion tons.

Lately, the olive oil indus­try has been strug­gling with a wrench­ing cri­sis brought on by mass-mar­ket price wars and a flood of low-qual­ity olive oil — a lot of it falsely labeled extra vir­gin.

Countless olive oil pro­duc­ers teeter on the edge of via­bil­ity. Many farms are cal­cu­lat­ing now, in the midst of the Northern Hemisphere’s har­vest sea­son, whether it’s even worth pulling the olives from the trees for crush­ing, or let them fall to the ground and rot away.

Prices recently hit lev­els low enough in Spain to trig­ger the so-called pri­vate stor­age aid” from the European Union, where qual­i­fy­ing pro­duc­ers can receive pay­ments for keep­ing their olive oil in tanks for six months, with­hold­ing the sup­ply from the mar­ket.

Up-and-com­ing New World pro­duc­ers, unable to com­pete on price with the lower-qual­ity, sub­si­dized imports are grow­ing louder, des­per­ately call­ing for con­sumers to con­sider olive oil qual­ity in their buy­ing deci­sions. For some, time is run­ning out. At least one major pro­ducer — Kailis Organic in Australia — has report­edly filed for bank­ruptcy pro­tec­tion, accord­ing to a source.

Jean-Louis Barjol, in his first year lead­ing the agency, has called for greater coop­er­a­tion as he grap­ples with the pric­ing cri­sis, highly-pub­li­cized reports crit­i­cal of olive oil qual­ity, and New World chal­lenges to the IOC trade stan­dards.

When Tom Mueller was asked if he thought Jean-Louis Barjol was doing enough to change things, his reply was. Hmm. No.”

In a phone inter­view, Mueller, whose first book is days from its release, said of the IOC direc­tor, Based on his IOC-led offen­sive in Australia, which is really quite amaz­ing, I don’t believe Barjol will lead change in the direc­tion of pro­mot­ing olive oil qual­ity.” Mueller was refer­ring to the IOC response to the new qual­ity stan­dard recently adopted in Australia.

Barjol and other rep­re­sen­ta­tives of major olive oil con­cerns in the Old World have their hands tied polit­i­cally, socially and eco­nom­i­cally from really mak­ing a move to qual­ity because they have so many peo­ple to take care of and such a huge eco­nomic respon­si­bil­ity to their con­stituents — many of whom are mak­ing com­mod­ity oil. So they (the IOC) have a hard time act­ing for qual­ity.”

Mueller nev­er­the­less believes the pres­ence of Barjol and rep­re­sen­ta­tives from the pow­er­ful Spanish trade group Interprofesional del Aceite de Oliva Español at the June, 2011 Beyond Extra Virgin con­fer­ence in Córdoba, Spain was an his­toric event.”

I think they do real­ize that the model they have — com­modi­tiz­ing a poten­tially highly valu­able prod­uct, and dri­ving it to the low­est com­mon denom­i­na­tor — is bro­ken, and I think they see that some­thing has to hap­pen. But they are in a very dif­fi­cult posi­tion to make that push for qual­ity. And the tac­tics they’re using to pre­vent that from hap­pen­ing in export mar­kets are scan­dalous. They are not, unfor­tu­nately, rep­re­sent­ing olive oil in its best light and that does­n’t serve their long-term inter­ests.”

Asked about the $1.7 mil­lion cam­paign recently launched by the IOC to pro­mote olive oil con­sump­tion in North America, Mueller had this to say:

You know, I think I checked out their Facebook page for about five min­utes, and there was Mercedes, and there was Fashion Week, and there were some very styl­ish peo­ple in the kitchen drink­ing wine, and I kept look­ing, and kept look­ing and I could­n’t see any olive oil. They’re not talk­ing about what’s in the bot­tle, and is it excel­lent.”

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