November 06, 2004
As part of its ongoing effort to shield consumers from falsely-labeled olive oil, the California Olive Oil Council (COOC) has initiated a suit against Napa Valley Trading Company and its owner Kendall Cook for deceptive marketing practices in the sale of Napa Valley Naturals olive oil. The suit was brought in Marin County Superior Court and alleges that “Napa Valley Naturals olive oils have no legitimate connection to Napa Valley, that they purchase their oil from bulk oil distributors rather than small farmers, and that much of the oil sold by defendants comes from outside of the Napa Valley, Northern California, and even from outside the United States. They also claim that the Napa Valley Naturals olive oils are misleadingly labeled as being of “extra virgin” quality when they consist of inferior grade olive oil and even imitation olive oil that has been mixed with other oils.
The Napa Valley Naturals name, logo, label, wine-shaped bottle, marketing and advertising are all intended to falsely suggest that the olives from which the oils are made come from Napa Valley, California. In fact the olives are not grown primarily or even in any material part in Napa Valley, California.
Other representations in written advertising and on the labels on the Napa Valley Naturals olive oils also falsely represent that the Napa Valley Naturals olive oils are made from olives planted and picked by small farmers on “select orchards” or from “150 year old” trees.
The COOC alleges that the labels of many of the brands of Napa Valley Naturals olive oil falsely state that defendants press their own olives into oil when in fact they do not press the olive oil they sell. The labels also imply that the olive oils are manufactured in Napa Valley, which is also untrue.
The suit alleges that in written advertising and labeling, the Napa Valley Naturals falsely represent that each of the Napa Valley Naturals olive oils are “extra virgin.” The term “extra virgin olive oil” is commonly understood by consumers to denote the highest quality of olive oil. Because of this, consumers pay a premium for this grade of oil. In the olive oil industry, the term “extra virgin olive oil” describes olive oil that meets the most stringent standards regarding manufacturing, chemical composition, taste and other organoleptic qualities.
Despite being labeled “extra virgin” and being advertised as such, the Napa Valley Naturals olive oils are not extra virgin. The COOC has found that the oils consist either of inferior grade olive oil, refined olive oil, or in some cases, imitation oil where the olive oil has been mixed with canola or other seed oils. For example, chemical testing of three bottles of Napa Valley Natural’s “Organic Extra Virgin” olive oil purchased from defendants revealed significant amounts of refined seed oil (probably canola).
The suit describes how advertising and labeling of the Napa Valley Naturals olive oils contain numerous other false and misleading representations, including use of the term “organic”, when in fact the olive oil does not meet the established standard for organic foods. They falsely represent that the oils are unfiltered and unrefined when some of the oil is, in fact, filtered and/or refined. Napa Valley Naturals also claim that their oils are “cholesterol free” “sodium free” or “GMO free”, which unlawfully and misleadingly suggests that other olive oils contain sodium, cholesterol or GMOs (Genetically Modified Organisms) and that the Napa Valley Naturals olive oils are therefore of a superior quality. They use the American flag on their labels and advertising to falsely suggest that the Napa Valley Naturals olive oils are entirely or substantially made, manufactured, or produced in the United States.
The COOC seeks to stop the mislabeling of Napa Valley Naturals products and to require restitution to all consumers harmed by Napa Valley Naturals and their products. The COOC is represented by the San Francisco-based law firm Kerr & Wagstaffe LLP.
While the validity of this particular suit will be determined in court, California olive oil industry activists are eager to find miscreants for several reasons. Unscrupulous vendors can cause a destructive chain reaction in the industry. If a distributor can shave costs and steal market share by using refined or imported oil, it puts price pressure on other producers who may succumb to similar unscrupulous activities to keep their business afloat. Publicity about one altered oil quickly tears down consumer confidence which has been painstakingly built up by most in the industry. Hopefully the publicity will also chasten those thinking of mislabeling oil, which will lead to more honest labeling and in the long run more consumer confidence
The COOC suit should also encourage discussion of labeling claims that fall into a gray area of untruth. Should olive oil claim to be sodium free? A retailer may as well claim their olive oil is free range farmed, carbohydrate free, mercury free, nuclear free or made without any animal testing. Some olive oil is sold with dreamy pictures of old world processing equipment such as Napa Valley Natural's picture below of a wooden screw press with the words "first cold press”.
According to a board member at the COOC, most oil in California is made with modern equipment and no oils in the US are made with a wooden screw press or with a second pressing.