New Industry Research Validates Trade Impact of "Terroir" on Olives

By Caroline J. Beck
July 01, 2010

“Terroir” has been a common term in the wine business for decades. It describes the climatic and geophysical aspects of a specific growing region and how environment – earth, sun, water – impacts the final agricultural product. Until recently, it was not associated with the production of olives or olive oil. However, an extensive research project being conducted by the California Olive Oil Council (COOC) has confirmed that varietal and geographic differences do exist and these differences can have a far reaching impact on future olive oil sales.

The multi-phased research is designed to provide greater clarity about naturally-occurring chemical differences in U.S. grown extra virgin olive oil that would limit potential export opportunities. This issue is not an imminent problem for most domestic growers, but as U.S. production of olive oil increases – it is expected to exceed 20 million gallons by 2020, up from a current 2009-2010 production of nearly 1 million gallons - any barriers to international trade will become more of an issue over the next decade.

At the heart of the issue are certain IOC standards for chemical criteria in extra virgin olive oil. Currently, EU and IOC chemical standards for olive oil are based on historical data gathered from a small area of central and southern Europe, including Spain, France, Italy and Greece. Research conducted from areas outside this region, including Australia and the United States, has confirmed that criteria should be modified to accommodate varietal and geographic differences.

“Olive oil standards criteria are quite complex. The first criteria are quality criteria; things that most growers are familiar with: free fatty acid levels, organoleptic panel assessments, and peroxide values. The purity criteria, however, are made up of an entirely different group, including fatty acids, sterols, and chemical compounds like campesterol and linolenic acid that help the chemist determine whether the oil has been processed or adulterated. Current limits of the purity criteria, though, do not cover the full range of naturally-occurring geographic variations,” said Bruce Golino, who spearheaded the project for the COOC.

Golino went on to explain that the first evidence of this problem came out of Australia, where rapid growth was hampered by an inability to export to other countries because of naturally-occurring higher levels of linolenic acid and campesterol. In one example, when shipments of Australian olive oil reached Europe, they were downgraded from extra virgin olive oil to vegetable oil because of these higher values.

Leveraging an USDA program, Technical Assistance for Specialty Crops (TASC), whose purpose is to identify and eliminate barriers that prohibit or threaten export of U.S. specialty crops, the COOC was granted funding to study this potential barrier.

Beginning in June 2009, the COOC collected numerous samples throughout the state of California, as well as samples from Oregon, Texas, Arizona and northern Mexico. The samples were drawn from two different harvest years, 2008-2009 and 2009-2010, to accommodate different climatic changes and included a wide range of varieties. Using two laboratory facilities – the USDA-based Science Specialty lab and another private lab – early results supported the COOC’s belief that there is a correlation between higher campesterol and linolenic acid levels and certain varietals, dependant on geographic origin.

“Most, but not all, of the results are in and preliminary indications point to the fact that we have a significant number of otherwise authentic oils that would fall outside the standard IOC limits for both of these compounds,” stated Golino. He expects that the full data profiling results of the first phase will be available later in the summer.

Planning for a larger export market opportunity for U.S. producers, the COOC has been working with the IOC and the Codex Alimentarius (meaning “food code”) Commission (CODEX), established by the United Nations and the World Health Organization, to harmonize worldwide standards for extra virgin olive oil. The research results will be fully complete in time for the next bi-annual meeting of CODEX in February 2011. Golino hopes that the first phase of data will be instrumental in effecting changes in current CODEX standards.

According to Patricia Darragh, COOC Executive Director, it is vitally important to continue to collect data in order to authenticate and establish standards that do not arbitrarily exclude U.S. grown olive oil from exportation into other markets. The COOC hopes that this study will provide data to show that, because some compounds vary from variety to variety as well as with the geography/climate of the growing region, standards which do not address natural variation could become artificial trade barriers.

“The opportunity to compile a database of olive oil chemistry statistics from the olive oil growing regions of the United States is a tremendous asset for the olive oil industry in California. Compiling this data will provide the first-ever comprehensive snapshot of the naturally occurring variations that are present in olive oil”, said Darragh.

Last month, the COOC submitted a second request to TASC in order to fund the second phase of this research. According to Golino, it will be essential to establish patterns of varietal and climatic changes year-to-year. In the second phase, the COOC hopes to further refine the selection and sampling process and gain additional expertise to analyze and interpret the results, developing a wider selection of data points. The full report of the first phase of research is expected to be released early August 2010.