24 May

State’s Olive Oil Tasters Flunk Test of Distinction

Stripped of authority to certify grades such as extra virgin,
an industry panel weighs its future.

By Jerry Hirsch,

California’s olive oil police have been pulled over.

An industry panel that for five years has certified the quality of California’s olive oil — discerning virgin from extra virgin oil — has flunked an international taste test.

The failure comes as the U.S. Department of Agriculture mulls over new olive oil grading standards. The agency’s guidelines date to 1948 and don’t even include the term “extra virgin olive oil.”

The lack of stringent U.S. regulations prompted the California Olive Oil Council in 2001 to use its own tasting panel. The group doesn’t have enforcement powers, but signals its approval by issuing seals to products that meet international standards for extra virgin oil, prized by both home and professional chefs for salads, baking and entree preparation.

However, the specially trained 22-member panel failed an annual test of its sensory skills last year. In January, the International Olive Oil Council pulled its formal recognition of the panel as a certifying body.

“It is an issue and we are concerned about it,” said Karen Guth, president of the California council. As a backup, the group is negotiating to send samples of oil produced by its members to an overseas tasting panel for certification while it seeks to regain international recognition in tests this year.

Mislabeled olive oil is more than a theoretical debate.

In February, federal agents raided a New Jersey warehouse where they seized 22,700 gallons of Hermes and San Giovanni branded extra virgin olive oil and pomace olive oil.

The imported products consisted almost entirely of soybean or vegetable oil, according to the Food and Drug Administration. Because olive oil is typically five or six times more expensive than soybean oil, the FDA estimated that the potential profit to be gained by the substitution was more than $100,000.

The FDA took action because the product was soy rather than olive, but the agency doesn’t look into whether grades of olive oil are labeled correctly, as long as the oil comes from olives, spokesman Michael Herndon said.

Last year, the California council filed a lawsuit against Napa Valley Trading Co. alleging that the purveyor mislabeled some of its products because it was blending in imported oils. Napa Valley Trading settled the lawsuit by agreeing to revise its labels to better reflect the origin of the oils and to require its suppliers to test the oils to ensure they meet international standards for what can be called extra virgin.

“Taste panels are valuable because they protect consumers,” said Alan Greene, general manager of California Olive Ranch in Oroville, the state’s largest olive oil producer.

“I regularly have bad experiences with oils that are not certified but I have never bought a bad bottle that has been certified,” said Greene, who is on the board of the California Olive Oil Council.

To qualify as extra virgin under international standards, the oil needs to be mechanically pressed from olives. Laboratory tests must prove that it has a free-fatty-acid level of no more than 0.8%. California’s council is more stringent, requiring that the acid must be 0.5% or less. Fatty acid binds with oxygen and increases the oil’s spoilage rate, said Bruce Golino, a tasting panel member.

The oil also must undergo scrutiny by a panel of experts, who smell and taste it to make sure the oil isn’t musty, rancid or otherwise unpleasant.

That’s where California’s olive oil panel tripped up.

The Madrid-based International Olive Oil Council, the primary international body for judging olive oil, sent the panel five oils, each labeled with a letter code. As a group, the panel had to correctly identify a defect or lack of defect in three of the five samples and rate the intensity of any defects on a standard international scale.

The Californians didn’t make the grade, although it isn’t known by how much.

Some in the group draw comfort from industry expectations that the sensory evaluation eventually will be done by machine.

“That would be great. Every tester misses the mark occasionally, and it would remove any possibility of a subjective aspect,” said Julie Poe Menge, a member of the council’s testing panel.

The effort to enact stricter olive oil standards follows rapid growth of olive oil consumption in the United States. Americans consume about 65 million gallons annually, eight times the volume of 20 years ago.

All but 1% is imported, and virtually all of the domestic oil comes from California, where farmers are adding thousands of acres of olive trees a year, said Paul Vossen, an olive specialist at the University of California Extension in Sonoma.

The California council wants the U.S. grades of “fancy,” “choice,” “standard” and “substandard” to be replaced by the internationally accepted terms of “extra virgin,” “virgin” and “refined.”

Additionally, it wants more precise standards for the amount of acceptable impurities and acid and a requirement that extra virgin oils undergo chemical and taste analysis.

Such changes would bring the U.S. up to par with the rules set by the International Olive Oil Council.

The USDA plans to propose new rules by early summer, with a 60-day public comment period to follow, spokesman Billy Cox said. No date has been set for issuing new standards.

California’s trade group asked the USDA for changes almost two years ago, believing that its members were at a disadvantage to importers and other domestic producers who used the lack of U.S. standards and enforcement to offer lower-quality oil as extra virgin and even mix olive and vegetable oils.

Oils certified by the California panel before its loss of international recognition offered consumers assurance and set California oils apart from rivals, council President Guth said.

But some producers, even former California Olive Oil Council board members, are now questioning whether there is even a need for such a panel.

“We would not bother to do the tests because we are confident in the quality of our oil, and the cost is not trivial,” said Ridgely Evers, who owns DaVero Sonoma Inc. in Healdsburg. Evers is one of the founders of the California council but has dropped out of the organization. “I don’t think I sell a single bottle less because I don’t have a seal on the label.”

Joining the California council, getting oils tested and paying for the official seal costs a producer at least $400 annually depending on how many varieties of oil it sells.

Evers believes that the USDA probably will adopt regulations used in Europe and elsewhere, where producers self-certify that their oil is extra virgin and “may, but are not required, to have tests done to validate their claim.”

If the oil is found to be substandard or mixed with other vegetable oils, the producer could be subject to fines and other regulatory sanctions, Evers said.

Although the California group is working to regain international recognition for its panel, Guth said the trade group was debating whether it wanted to remain in the certification business.

“If we could find an independent certification panel that is financially feasible for our members, we would probably jump at it,” said Guth, who produces the Pasolivo brand in Paso Robles.

Such a move would free the council to focus its efforts on marketing California olive oil. The group, which has long operated on an annual budget of about $75,000, received $150,000 in grants from the USDA last year to develop a marketing campaign.

It’s putting together grocer-shelf advertisements, educational materials for store employees and other promotional materials, said Patricia Darragh, the council’s executive director.

“The grants will be a lifeline for us to start promoting our member’s extra virgin olive oil,” she said.

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