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USDA Revises Grade Standards for Olive Oil

 
By Caroline J. Beck
05/14/2010

It is the good news the industry has been waiting years to receive. On April 27, the USDA published revised U.S. grade standards for olive oil, bringing the United States current with worldwide industry standards and setting the stage for greater quality control of both product and marketing. The standards will become effective October 24 , 2010.

According to the USDA, the revised standards will provide a common language for the trade and provide consumers more assurance of the quality of olive oil that they purchase. The standards include objective criteria for the various grades, including definitions for extra virgin olive oil, virgin olive oil, olive oil, refined olive oil, and olive pomace oil. The standards will also serve as a basis for voluntary inspection and grading of these products by the USDA.

“The adoption of an olive oil standard by the USDA is a historic achievement for California growers and producers as well as retailers and consumers. The petition, filed by the California Olive Oil Council (COOC) in 2005, served notice to unscrupulous importers that the United States will no longer be a haven for mislabeled low grades of olive oil or oils claiming to be olive oil. We are thrilled to finally have standards in place that will support the growth of the industry in such a positive way,” summed up Patty Darragh, Executive Director of the COOC.

It is with appropriate pride that the COOC acknowledged the importance of this announcement, replacing long outdated standards originally adopted in 1948. COOC board members, Tom Sloan and Bruce Golino were instrumental in creating the original petition to update the standards and both remained vigilant during the long adoption process.

The new standards will be supported with USDA-authorized inspection and grading services. “The USDA has a voluntary fee-for service inspection program that is available to financially interested parties in need of grading and certification services. If during the course of our inspection, we find a product that is mislabeled, such as if a product is labeled as virgin olive oil when in fact it is not, the Food and Drug Administration will be notified,” stated USDA spokesperson, Jimmie Turner. Turner further explained that “enforcement action against mislabeling is the responsibility of the Federal Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and other State and local agencies.”

Chere Shorter of the Processed Products Branch, who spearheaded the development of the new standards for the USDA, confirmed that official USDA-certified product grading will be provided jointly by the Processed Products Branch of the USDA and the USDA’s Science and Technology Program that supports the Agricultural Marketing Service of the USDA . Both divisions will operate on an hourly fee basis. “Producers will be provided with an estimate of the overall costs when they apply for voluntary inspection and grading based on the range of tests requested,” said Shorter.

The grading services will be conducted by the USDA’s Science Specialty Laboratories in Blakely, Georgia. According to Field Laboratory Supervisor, Michael Miller, the lab plans to be fully able to support the standards by the effective date with both chemical and organoleptic (taste) evaluations. “The total fees for various tests are dependent on lot size, number of samples and number of tests per sample. The range of tests will be based on what is required for a particular grade objective,” said Miller. “The process, though, doesn’t start with us. Once the standards are effective, if a producer wants their oil officially graded against these standards, they will submit a request to the Processed Products division of the USDA, who will conduct on-site sampling and then will forward those samples to us”, he said.

Shorter confirmed that “unofficial” USDA grading can take place if a producer provides the samples themselves to the USDA following guidelines soon to be published by the Processed Products Branch and submits them for USDA S&T laboratory analysis; and while this approach will not result in an official certification label, it can be used to confirm product grade to retailers.

The USDA estimates that the standards revision could potentially affect importers of olive oil and more than 500 domestic olive oil producers and growers. In 2008, U.S. olive oil production was 500,000 gallons (about 3.8 million pounds). Domestic olive oil consumption is roughly 454 million pounds per year, mostly imported.

“We are not certain of the effect [that these standards will have] on the volume of imported oil. The U.S. is one of the largest markets for imported olive oil. Imported olive oil represents 99 percent of U.S. consumption. We hope that the effect will be truth-in-labeling and an assurance that consumers are getting what they paid for,” stated USDA’s Turner.

LINKS FOR MORE INFORMATION

For interested growers and producers, the following website links may be helpful in learning more about the new standards and the grading process:

Full text of the newly published standards

To request on-line/in-plant inspections and grading, contact your local USDA field office.

The Code of Federal Regulations (CFR) 7 CFR 52 explains USDA inspection and certification services such as sampling plan, fees, application for services, and appeals process.

When the official grading manual and instructions for inspection are ready (expected prior to the official effective date on October 24, 2010), they will be located, free of charge, on the “Grading and Inspection Resources” link on the USDA Processed Products Branch main page.

If you have specific questions or want more information, contact Chere L. Shorter, Processed Products Branch, Fruit and Vegetable Programs, Agricultural Marketing Service, USDA, Stop 0247, 1400 Independence Avenue SW, Washington, DC 20250-0247; by email chere.shorter@ams.usda.gov; or fax (202) 690-1527.