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Several Industry Events Address Challenges

 
By Caroline J. Beck
02/01/2012

The olive oil industry began the New Year with a flurry of high profile events highlighting two primary issues that hold the domestic market back from explosive growth and business opportunity: how to increase usage and prevent a continuing pattern of fraud. On the heels of last year’s media attention paid to the publication of a new book on the olive oil business, audiences were anxious to hear positive news about activities that would move the business forward in a better light.

The “seminar season” began in St. Helena, California at The Culinary Institute of America’s (CIA) Greystone campus, where 250 professionals gathered for a one-day seminar jointly produced by the CIA and the UC Davis Olive Center to discuss issues facing the domestic olive oil industry.

Of any industry group, the CIA is potentially in the best position to help change consumer perception of high quality olive oil and increase usage by educating chefs about the oil’s importance on restaurant tables. Last year’s research by UC Davis demonstrated just how powerful restaurants can be in the education process when a majority of consumers identified negative factors as favorable – learned from mislabeled products on grocery store shelves and poor quality oils poured at restaurant tables. CIA Vice President, Greg Drescher clearly understands this and is encouraging the CIA to take a strong hand in its promotion.

“We have made tremendous progress in the United States over the last couple of decades toward opening a door to a food culture that appreciates olive oil. Now, we just need to finish the job we started and build a culture that truly understands and values the elements of quality and the possibilities of flavor in olive oil,” said Drescher.

San Francisco’s NASFT Fancy Food Show was the venue for the California Olive Oil Council (COOC) to sponsor a short session on olive oil quality for specialty food retailers. While not as in-depth as the CIA’s day-long exploration of issues facing the industry, the COOC’s gathering of industry professionals from around the world touched on the same themes. Author Tom Mueller, in the midst of a press tour for his book, Extra Virginity, guided panelists from Australia to Argentina in a discussion of recent industry accomplishments and upcoming challenges. The comments demonstrated that problems related to quality and fraud are not unique to the United States.

Panelist Paul Miller, President of the Australia Olive Association, spoke of his organization’s efforts in Australia to create an environment where quality olive oils can succeed based on ensuring the very highest quality and consumers can be encouraged to use extra virgin olive oils as an everyday ingredient.

“The style common to all Australian-grown oils is one of being “fresh” – a freshness that comes through in a full range of different intensities. We have led the world in making the analysis of olive oil more practical, so our market is defined, quite simply, by extra virgin olive oil – and all the rest. We have gotten the message out to consumers that we are giving them permission to use extra virgin olive oil with everything,” said Miller.

The week concluded with two events staged in California’s state capitol and central valley, home to the largest volume of olive groves in the country. The 1st Annual Olive Oil Conference held on January 19th and 20th was a gathering of a wide range of industry professionals, from growers and producers to educators and marketers. The primary focus of the event was to establish a “marketing order” – or a set of self-imposed rules of conduct – that industry participants can adhere to for the betterment of the business as a whole. A secondary focus of the event was the practice of super high-density (SHD) olive farming and production. A rapidly growing category of farming practices, SHD farming is designed to improve the production and profitability of the category by staging densely-packed groves of trees, noted for heavy fruit production.

Finally, California Senator Lois Wolk, Chair of the Agriculture Subcommittee of Olive Oil Production and Emerging Products chaired a California Senate hearing on enforcement of olive oil standards and the damaging effects of low-grade olive oil on consumer’s health and pocketbooks. The focus of the hearing was presented by industry experts and speakers including author Tom Mueller and UC Davis Olive Center Director Dan Flynn to Darrell Corti, long-time olive oil expert and retailer in the Sacramento area. Senator Wolk has shown strong support for an industry represented in her own California Fifth District and continues to shine the light on issues like fraudulent imports and low-grade, underpriced market options that hold her constituents back from fair marketplace competition.

“This is an industry with a great deal of potential. It can provide a heart-healthy product, and is also an ideal crop for California. The state has the ideal climate and soil to grow olive trees, and olive trees require very little water, which is at a premium in our state,” said Wolk.

“I look forward to working with all parties to find solution to make sure consumers are getting what they pay for, and to provide honest growers and producers with a fair marketplace,” Wolk concluded.