David Neuman, CEO at the North American subsidiary of Greek olive oil specialist Gaea, is a man on a mission to educate consumers, journalists, retail buyers – and anyone else that will listen – about the merits of extra virgin olive oil, and why much of the stuff on shelf is, he claims, not the real deal.
He told FoodNavigator-USA: “In my opinion up to 70% of the products labeled as extra virgin olive oil in US supermarkets are not extra virgin olive oil at all.”
He adds: “If you went to a meat counter at the grocery store and saw a grey piece of meat for a good price, would you buy it?”
The trouble with olive oil, he says, is that consumers can’t see what they are buying. “For fish or meat or produce or bakery, you can see for yourself in the store if it is a good quality, fresh product. For olive oil it’s in these dark bottles, and people can’t see or smell what is going on.
“But it’s no different to rotten tomatoes, or stale bread. You wouldn’t buy rotten meat at the supermarket, so why are you buying rotten olive oil?”
UC Davis report revealed widespread problems
While press reports often focus on cases where companies have deliberately adulterated products by mixing olive oil with cheaper oils (canola) and other ingredients, the bulk of products labeled as EVOO don’t make the grade for different reasons, claims Neuman.
Much of the oil labeled as EVOO, for example, is just made from poor quality olive oil from damaged and overripe olives – or not processed according to recognized industry standards. In other cases, heat, light and aging have degraded the oil – which may have been extra virgin when it was extracted, but does not meet the criteria by the time you buy it at the supermarket 18 months later, he alleges.
In other cases, EVOO may have been mixed with cheaper refined olive oil; or degraded because it hasn’t been stored properly, he argues.
EVOO must have a free fatty acid content of 0.8g or less per 100g and a peroxide value of <20 milliequivalent oxygen per kg. It must be produced by mechanical means without solvents, and under temperatures that will not degrade it (<86°F), ensuring it retains its antioxidants and fresh, fruity flavor. It should also pass a sensory evaluation by a trained tasting panel.
I sent the test results to the buyer and he said it’s not my problem
The fact that many products do not meet these criteria first hit the headlines in a big way in 2010/2011 after researchers at UC Davis published a pretty damning report prompting lawsuits and a lot of bad PR for the industry, he says.
But four years on, the problems have not gone away, argues Neuman, who says he recently sent a bottle of suspiciously cheap extra virgin olive oil he bought at a leading US retailer for analysis, which revealed that it was in fact lampante virgin olive oil (an oil with an acidity of > 3.3g per 100g designated as not fit for human consumption).
But this didn’t start a revolution, he says: “I sent the results to the buyer [at the retailer in question] and he basically said it’s not my problem.”
'All of this could be fixed if buyers stopped bringing in all this garbage'
So what can consumers do?
For a start, look at the price tag, he advises. If a retailer is selling a half liter of EVOO for $3.99 or $4.99, it is either selling it at a loss, or it is likely not selling the genuine article. And assuming the latter scenario is more likely, either the buyers are unwittingly being duped, or they suspect it’s not the real deal, and simply don’t care.
“You cannot make EVOO for that price anywhere in the world.”
The other thing consumers should do, he adds, is open the bottle when they get home and taste it – which a lot of people that use olive oil primarily for cooking/stir frying – never actually do.
“It should have a pleasant, artichoke flavor. If it smells and tastes terrible, take it back and complain. Just like you would if a retailer sold you a rotten piece of meat.”
But ultimately, it shouldn’t be down to consumers to police the market, he said.
“All of this could be fixed if buyers stopped bringing in all this garbage.”
Their olive oil assortment has gone down, but their sales and profits have gone up
But until olive oil is viewed like wine, rather than pasta, cookies or any other packaged grocery product, it’s hard to see attitudes changing, he said.
“Most major food retailers have a trained sommelier or at least a dedicated wine buyer but none of them have an olive oil buyer, despite the fact that it is just as complex an agricultural product. They just don’t see the value in it.”
That said, some progress is being made, he acknowledged.
“Some chains like Wegmans have done good job of this category management; their assortment has gone down, but their sales and profits have gone up. Kroger is also doing a major olive oil review right now and decluttering its set, while The Fresh Market is probably one of the best in the country at curating only good oils.”
Consumers are being misled
Now cynics might argue that if consumers keep coming back and buying lousy - and likely misbranded – extra virgin olive oil at $3.99 a pop without noticing or caring that it tastes pretty grim, then maybe we should let them get on with it.
But this is missing the point, observes Neuman, who says that if labels are not underpinned by standards that are properly policed, and no one cares, that’s pretty depressing.
“It’s probably one of the most confusing, misunderstood and actually rife with fraud parts of the food business. Much like the organic food industry in the 80s and early 90s, which was like the Wild West until standards were put in place.”
No one is putting a gun to producers’ heads saying get your product tested by a trained panel
But aren’t there standards in place for olive oil?
Yes, says Neuman, but they’re not being enforced.
“The International Olive Council was set up to harmonize standards around the world, but the US Australia and Argentina and some other countries are not members, in part because they believe that the IOC standards are not strict enough and are just trying to protect oils grown and produced in Europe.
“USDA standards are more rigorous – and new standards in California [which only apply to producers, not importers] are more rigorous still – but in general, standards are not being policed.”
Meanwhile, well-established sensory tests that identify organoleptic defects (is the oil musty, rancid, grubby?) are not routinely conducted by manufacturers or buyers, he claimed.
“No one is putting a gun to producers’ heads saying get your product tested by a trained panel, and buyers don’t ask.”
Click HERE to read the UC Davis report on leading olive oils brands.
Neuman - a certified master panel taster and formerly president of Italian olive oil specialist Lucini Italia, is now CEO of Gaea North America. He is speaking at a webinar on olive oil standards organized by Keller and Heckman LLP and the State Bar of California on May 27 in San Francisco. Click HERE for details.