Extra virgin olive oil standard of identity needed to tackle 'widespread mislabeling,' claims petition

By Elaine Watson

- Last updated on GMT

Picture: GettyImages-dulezidar
Picture: GettyImages-dulezidar

Related tags Olive oil

If the term ‘extra virgin olive oil’ is to have any meaning for US shoppers, the FDA needs to come up with a standard of identity – and enforce it – argues a citizen’s petition filed this week by the American Olive Oil Producers Association (AOOPA) and the world’s largest olive oil company Deoleo.

Extra virgin olive oil labeling first hit the headlines in a big way in 2010/2011 after researchers at UC Davis published a report​​​​ claiming that "most of the topselling olive oil brands we examined regularly failed to meet international standards for extra virgin olive oil,​" prompting a flurry of lawsuits and a wave of bad PR for the industry.   

But the problems have not gone away, AOOPA chairman Adam Englehardt told FoodNavigator-USA.

While there are fewer cases of outright fraud where companies have deliberately adulterated products by mixing extra virgin olive oil with cheaper refined olive oil, or seed oils such as canola, many products labeled as extra virgin olive oil (EVOO) still don’t make the grade for different reasons, he claimed.

“It’s hard to put exact numbers on it. 10 years ago adulteration with other seed oils was quite prevalent, and while I think that’s still common in foodservice, it’s less common in retail. Now what we see is mislabeling, where inferior product is labeled as extra virgin olive oil.”

In most cases, heat, UV light, oxygen and aging have simply degraded the oil – which may have been extra virgin when it was extracted (in that it was produced by mechanical means without solvents at low temperatures to ensure it retains its antioxidants and fresh, fruity flavor) - but does not meet the criteria by the time you buy it at the supermarket, perhaps years later, he alleged.

In other scenarios, products labeled as EVOO may be made from damaged or overripe olives, or not processed according to recognized industry standards, he said.

‘It’s no longer fresh, it doesn’t taste good, and it doesn’t deliver the health benefits consumers expect’

The challenge is that while California has tough standards for producers, established in 2014, and the USDA has a voluntary standard, there are no legally enforceable federal standards for extra virgin olive oil sold in the US, and “products are therefore labeled as producers see fit​,” claimed Englehardt.

The International Olive Council (IOC) does not count the US, Australia, and other emerging producing countries as members, in part because these countries believe the IOC standards are not strict enough or include criteria that do not accommodate natural variations in chemistry associated with producing regions such as the US, he argued.

In many cases the quality may have been decent at the time of production, but as the oil makes its way through the supply chain, by the time it reaches consumers it’s aged past the point when it’s extra virgin. It’s no longer fresh, it doesn’t taste good, and it doesn’t deliver the health benefits consumers expect. Maybe it has spent excessive time in distribution centers that are not temperature controlled.

“You’re seeing oils that are assigned a two-year shelf life (best before date) regardless, so a major part of what we’re trying to do is to institute freshness tests, as consumers deserve to have best before dates that are real.”

'You wouldn’t buy rotten meat or stale bread, so why are you buying rotten olive oil?’

olives Gaea in baskets
Picture: Gaea

David Neuman, CEO at the North American subsidiary of Greek olive oil specialist Gaea, has been on a mission to educate consumers, journalists, retail buyers about the merits of extra virgin olive oil, and why much of the stuff on shelf is, he claims, not the real deal.

His campaign stepped up a notch in 2015 after sending 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 have the impact he had hoped, he told FoodNavigator-USA at the time​: “I sent the results to the buyer, and he basically said it’s not my problem.”​​

Put it this way, said Neuman, if a retailer is selling a half liter of EVOO for $3.99 or $4.99, it’s either selling it at a loss, or it is not selling the genuine article.   

One thing consumers can do after purchasing olive oil is simply taste it, which a lot of people that use olive oil primarily for cooking/stir frying never actually do, he claimed.

“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. You wouldn’t buy rotten meat or stale bread, so why are you buying rotten olive oil?"

‘If we tried to keep foreign oil out we’d be cutting our own throats’

So who is to blame for these quality issues? And is the problem primarily with olive oil imported from particular countries or regions?

According to Englehardt: “There are growers committed to quality in every olive growing country, but unfortunately the marketing channel for olive oil has been dominated by folks buying oils from multiple countries and aggregating it, and growers and producers that are focused on quality are not being rewarded for producing higher quality. It’s not really about any country, it’s about the middlemen.”

Asked if the call for a standard of identity could be construed as a cynical protectionist measure designed to keep out imports and benefit California growers, he said: “If we tried to keep foreign oil out we’d be cutting our own throats.

“Yes, we might see short term gains, but in the medium term we’d be doing the consumer a disservice and shrinking the category, as domestic olive oil production only accounts for around 6% of domestic consumption.”

Random sampling program

So how might a new standard of identity be policed and enforced by the FDA?

“This is up to the FDA,” ​said Englehardt, “but my vision of how this would work would be for the FDA to create a random sampling program off the shelf and any producer that is mislabeling products could then have a conversation with the FDA, and if they are consistently failing, the FDA can take enforcement action.”

Asked whether lawmakers AOOPA has been talking to on Capitol Hill this week cared about olive oil standards, he said: “Higher quality standards are good for growers and producers here. We now have olive oil producers in Arizona, Georgia, Texas and Florida as well as California, so this isn’t just about California.”

NAOOA: Taken by surprise

Joseph R. Profaci, executive director at the North American Olive Oil Association (NAOOA), which represents the majority of the olive oil consumed in the US and Canada, said he was surprised when he saw the AOOPA petition, given that NAOOA has been talking to the FDA and to lawmakers about a standard of identity for years. 

"Establishing a standard of identity is one of NAOOA's most important objectives. From day one in my job I've been reaching out and building bridges with the California industry; even as late as last week we jointly scheduled a call about establishing a working group to discuss this issue, so I was surprised when I found out about this from a report in Politico."

So would a NAOOA proposed standard differ materially from the one proposed by the AOOPA and Deoleo?

The devil is in the detail, said Profaci, noting that revising the parameters for certain sterols such as campesterol to reflect the different qualities of olive oils grown in countries such as the US and Argentina - as AOOPA proposes - is a good idea, but only with caveats, as "if you raise the limit for these you make it easier to adulterate with seed oils​."

"The NAOOA’s forthcoming petition will in some key respects go further than the Nov. 5 petition in protecting consumers with respect to quality and authenticity."

He also noted that the fact that the industry aggregates oils  should not be construed as evidence of lower quality standards, noting that blending oils from different producing regions was frequently done deliberately in order to create specific taste profiles.

The proposed standard of identity

The AOOPA/Deoleo proposed standard of identity - which includes modern analytical testing methodologies for freshness (eg. testing for pyropheophytins (PPPs) and 1,2-diacylglycerol (DAGs) - rely heavily on the standard for olive oil promulgated by the California Department of Food and Agriculture in 2014 (which only applies to olive oil grown in CA, not to all olive oil sold​ in the state).

The tests serve as strong indicators of degradation through age or poor storage conditions, lower quality oils, and oil produced from deteriorated fruit,”​ says the petition​.

The standard proposes three categories: olive oil, olive pomace oil, and mixtures of olive oil or olive-pomace oil with vegetable or seed oils.

The olive oil category contains five grades: extra virgin olive oil, virgin olive oil, olive oil, refined olive oil, and lampante oil, with classifications based on extraction methods, free acidity levels, degrees of fruitiness, median defects, and other characteristics.

Picture: GettyImages-MarianVejcik

'Consumers are frequently misled'

Off the shelf product testing demonstrates that US consumers are frequently misled by mislabeling of grades and marketing tactics that leave them unable to differentiate between high quality extra virgin olive oil and low-quality, old or rancid oils, as well as cheap by-products that are chemically and mechanically refined and colored to resemble olive oil.

“Indeed, there is so much differentiation within the ‘extra virgin olive oil’ category that this grade fails to provide consumers with any benchmark for assessing quality or pricing. In order to ensure authenticity and correct labeling, new standards must be implemented to regulate various grades of olive oil (e.g., extra virgin olive oil, virgin olive oil, olive oil composed refined oils) and olive-pomace oil.”

AOOPA and Deoleo citizen’s petition,​ November 2019  

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