11 Jun

No more Italian labels on our olive oil, Greece says

By Raphael Ermano,

With an annual production of 400,000 tonnes, Greece is the world’s third largest producer of olive oil not that consumers ever realise, given the country’s habit of selling the bulk of its exports to Italian retailers, who treat and package the product under their own labels.

Out of 100,000 tonnes currently exported from Greece, only six percent are sold under Greek brands, according to the finance ministry.

But with the promise of a demand surge in the Far East and the United States now beckoning, Greek producers say they will no longer tolerate the dominance of foreign brands that essentially contain a Greek product.

“Our strategy is to obtain a durable position in high-potential markets where we already have a small presence, such as the United States, Australia and Japan,” says Gregory Antoniadis, chairman of the union of Greek olive oil producers (Sevitel).

“We may be late-comers in terms of marketing, but our long-term objective is to perform just as well as our foreign competitors,” he adds.

The Greek olive oil sector currently spends about 10 million euros (12 million dollars) a year on marketing, Antoniadis told AFP.

The Greek state has contributed a further five million euros this year under an initiative decreeing 2006 as the “Year of the Olive and Olive Oil”.

Part of the programme involves staff at Athens International Airport handing out free bottles of olive oil to departing tourists.

With recent studies showing a possible link between olive oil consumption and reduced coronary heart disease, Greek producers are seeking to capitalise, hoping that their traditional methods — which have reaped a multitude of international awards — will help them reach organic and gourmet store markets.

But the very nature of the Greek industry — broken up among small and medium-scale operators whose olives are handpicked and pressed in cooperatives — has also complicated efforts for a concerted marketing drive, says Christina Sotiropoulou, a market specialist at the Hellenic Foreign Trade Board (HEPO).

“We would be very interested in bottling and selling our olive oil ourselves, but Greece is a small economy, and one needs financial muscle to compete with foreign companies on their own turf,” she notes.

Twenty-five Greek olive oil brands are registered under the EU’s Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) and Protected Geographical Indication (PGI) status, nine of them from the island of Crete.

But quality alone is not sufficient to crack a foreign market, says George Papakirikos, an olive oil operator exporting the PDO-registered Sitia brand to France.

“When I began to market this oil 10 years ago, it had never left the island of Crete, and came in a container that looked like a perfume vial, labelled in Greek,” he says. “I rapidly realised that demand would not be high.”

Nowadays, the product is packaged in an Italian-style bottle and a French label, and sales are brisk, he adds.

And just as his personal business has taken off in recent years, so are Greek operators rapidly learning the sector’s marketing methods, Papakirikos says.

“Greeks are making their presence increasingly felt at fairs. They are making an effort at presentation and the public is beginning to realise that their oil is of excellent quality,” he argues.

“But it has taken them awhile to get going, and the gap with the Spanish and Italians will be difficult to cover,” he says.

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