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New UC Davis Research Extends Concerns Over Quality

 
By Caroline J. Beck
04/13/2011

Results from a second stage of research conducted by University of California Davis (UCD) were released today confirming concerns over the quality and authenticity of imported olive oils labeled as extra virgin and sold in the United States. Findings indicated that the quality level of the largest imported brands were inconsistent and regularly failed to meet international standards for extra virgin olive oil.

The initial study, released in July 2010, supported a widely-held belief that the U.S. has long been the dumping ground for inferior quality imported olive oils. Some critics questioned the initial research results, but the new study addressed those concerns by extending the breadth and depth of the analysis for greater statistical confidence. The initial lot of 52 samples from 14 brands was expanded to include an additional 134 samples of 8 brands collected from retail shelves in California. The samples were analyzed by two International Olive Council (IOC)-accredited sensory panels following both IOC testing methods, as well as independent testing methods used in Germany and Australia.

“The United States is the third-largest consumer of olive oil in the world,” said Dan Flynn, executive director of the UC Davis Olive Center. “While there are many excellent imported and domestic olive oils available, our tests indicate that there are serious quality problems out there.”

The eight sample brands of extra virgin olive oil included the five top-selling imported brands from Italy (Filippo Berio, Bertolli, Colavita, Star and Pompeian), the top-selling brand from California (California Olive Ranch), the top-selling brand from Australia (Cobram Estates) and the top-selling Italian premium brand (Lucini). Only the Californian and Australian brands were found to be free of sensory defects in all samples.

Of the five top-selling imported “extra virgin” olive oil brands, 73 percent failed the IOC sensory standards, with failure rates by brand ranging from 94 percent to 56 percent. Chemical standards established by the IOC for free fatty acids (FFA), fatty acid profile (FAP) and peroxide value (PV) were passed by all the samples, but several imported samples failed the IOC’s ultraviolet absorption (UV) tests.

“What UC Davis is doing is fabulous and I think this latest study reinforces their previous work to the point that the results are unassailable”, said Shawn Addison, president of The Olive Oil Source. “Unfortunately, all of us in the domestic olive oil industry have yet to get the grocery industry, consumers and regulators to understand how severely U.S. consumers are being cheated out of the health and other benefits they think they are getting from olive oil consumption when they purchase fraudulent and mislabeled product.”

According to the report, the failures stemmed from one or more of three likely causes: oxidation by exposure to elevated temperatures, light or aging; adulteration with cheaper refined olive oil; and poor quality oil made from damaged and overripe olives, processing flaws, and/or improper storage.

“The best extra virgin oil will smell and taste fresh,” said Flynn. Quality oils often show the most recent harvest year on the bottle, have containers that protect the oil from light, and do not have a dusty or shopworn appearance, according to Flynn.

These latest findings are likely to add fuel to the fire created by the initial report, which generated high media attention and spawned at least one lawsuit against retail stores selling fraudulently labeled “extra virgin” products at premium prices. Further, domestic producers have argued that low-priced, inferior and adulterated product has created an unfair competitive environment for U.S.-produced oils. Newly revised USDA quality standards, intended to address the problem, are now seen as only a stepping stone to correcting the issue because the standards are voluntary and, to date, no actions against fraudulent products have been taken by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the government agency responsible for enforcing labeling laws and food quality standards.

More details and an Executive Summary of the research report can be found at the UC Davis Olive Center website .