AB 535, in its original form, effectively prohibited “any reference to California or any other representation on the principal display panel” of olive oil containers unless 100% of the olives used to produce the oil were grown in California.
According to California Olive Ranch, this was a blatant attempt – backed by some of its competitors - to go after its successful ‘Global Blend’ extra virgin olive oil series, which combines extra virgin olive oils from California and other growing regions in Latin America and Europe, and accounts for a sizeable chunk of its sales.
California Olive Ranch argued that the bill amounted to a “solution in search of a problem” given that the labels spell out that the bottles contain a ‘global blend of oils from Argentina, Chile, Portugal, California’ and as such would not be confused with the company’s 100% California-grown olive oil.
Backers of AB 535, however, argued that it would “protect Californian olive growers and manufacturers from being undercut in the market by [cheaper blended] oils that benefit from using the ‘California’ name to mislead consumers about what they’re buying.”
California Olive Ranch CEO: ‘It’s not ideal, but that’s the nature of compromise, right?’
Amendments to the bill – which passed in the House in May – have since modified its language such that brands featuring the word ‘California’ or other references to the Golden state on pack can still sell blended products, but would be required to state the minimum amount of California-sourced olive oil in such products in the “same font, size, and color as the word ‘California.’”
This means California Olive Ranch will likely have to redesign its logo to comply with the law, which would apply to products manufactured after Dec 31, 2021, said CEO Michael Fox, who noted that California governor Gavin Newsom would need to sign off on any bill (assuming it passes both houses) by mid-September (when he faces a recall election).
“Obviously it's been a difficult debate,” he told FoodNavigator-USA, “but we're thankful to the Senate Agriculture and Health Committees, who were able to help draft amendments that make sense for both sides and as a result, we've moved to a neutral position on the bill.”
He added: “It’s not ideal, but that’s the nature of compromise right, not everyone is going to get what they want, but I think at the end of the day, we're happy to do that to be compliant with the law.”
Regional olive oil labeling
Separately, he said, a section in the original bill prohibiting brands from highlighting a specific region of California such as Napa Valley on their labels unless at least 85% of the olive oil was produced from olives grown in that region has also been amended because it simply wasn’t practical.
For example, culinary brand Napa Valley Naturals has one olive oil product that states the oil is from the Sacramento Valley, while its other olive oil product states that the oil is ‘from the Mediterranean.’ Under the original version of AB 535, said Fox, the Mediterranean product would have had to be discontinued unless Napa Valley Naturals ditched its company logo.
Aside from the fact that ‘Napa Valley Naturals’ is clearly a brand name that could apply to multiple products, he added: “I don't believe there's enough olive oil produced in Napa Valley to make it [the 85% labeling requirement in the original bill] even feasible.”
If brands use terms such as ‘Napa Valley olive oil,’ on product labels however, the 85% requirement still applies, he said.
- Read more HERE about AB 535, which was introduced by California State Assembly Member Cecilia Aguiar-Curry and backed by several olive oil producers in the state (competitors to California Olive Ranch) including Sciabica’s California Olive Oil, Seka Hills, Cobram Estate, McEvoy Ranch, and 43 Ranch; the Olive Oil Commission of CA; and the Olive Growers Council of California. It was opposed by The California Retailers Association, The Mill at Kings River, Knaughty Farms, Corning Olive Oil Company, Enzo Olive Oil Company/P-R Farms, California Olive Ranch, Imperial Olive Mill, Cal Harvest Marketing, The Olive Oil Factory, Alfa Laval, Apex, Valley Farm Transport, Wawona Frozen Foods, and the Fresno Chamber of Commerce.
The Global Blend series from California Olive Ranch (COR) contains a blend of oils from Argentina, Chile, Portugal, California and was introduced (under a different name) in 2017/18 following a “crop disaster” which meant the company “only produced a third of what we needed to produce,” said CEO Michael Fox.
The range - which now accounts for 70% of sales – “helps us manage the fluctuations in our California supply and allows us to have a more accessible price point for consumers to come in at,” said Fox.
Rival producers such as 43 Ranch, however, took umbrage, telling the Olive Oil Times that the more accessibly-priced range “undermines all of us that are trying to do business and promote our product as a California extra virgin olive oil."