May 05, 2006
The truth about California Olive Oil Council's (COOC) taste panel demotion last fall by the International Olive Council (IOC) has finally leaked out. Embarrassing headlines such as "State's Olive Oil Tasters Flunk" and "Stripped of authority to certify grades such as extra virgin, an industry panel weighs its future" have appeared in newspapers such as the L.A. Times, Monterey County Herald, Contra Costa Times, etc. Everyone loves a scandal but the brouhaha fails to reveal some of the deeper problems and issues.
The California Olive Oil Council initiated the taste panel when progress on changing the USDA's decrepit rating system slowed to a crawl. Unlike virtually every other olive growing country, the US has chosen since 1948 to label olive oil with meaningless terms such as fancy, choice and substandard. Other countries support the extra virgin, virgin, refined and olive pomace oil definitions set by the IOC out of Madrid.
Most of the olive oil consumed in the US is imported and with no labeling oversight, olive oils which must be labeled Refined in Italy have been routinely sold in the US as Extra Virgin. This strategy has historically been allowed by the importers industry organization; the North American Olive Oil Association (NAOOA). Negotiations between the COOC and the NAOOA became contentions several years ago (although the NAOOA now accepts the FDA changes with reservation).
The problem was well phrased by Antoinette Addison of Figueroa Farms in her USDA comment: "The fact that these companies can label their olive oil as extra virgin legally when it is in fact cheaper and lesser quality oil makes it extremely difficult for people like us to be competitive. We are not asking for special protection, trade barriers, or subsidies, but for standard definitions that allow grocery stores and consumers to compare apples to apples."
Unable to compete on price, the COOC came up with a divisive solution; the COOC seal. COOC directors wanted the public to understand that California olive oil was more "extra virgin" than the imported stuff sold at mass market retailers. Disputes over whether all COOC members would be required to acquire the seal for their oil, how the oil would be tested and how much it would cost, the size of the lot which would be included in the enforcement, whether flavored oils could be labeled extra virgin, the consequences of oil mistreated at the retail level flunking spot tests, etc. caused some major supporters and pioneers in the industry to walk away from the COOC.
he oldest producer in the state, Nick Sciabica & Sons, was put off by the fact that they would have to certify the dozens of oils they regularly make in small amounts for sale at farmer's markets. Certifying a single 55 gallon drum of an unusual variety or an estate pressing can cost hundreds of dollars in direct and indirect expenses.
In an attempt to further differentiate themselves from imported extra virgin olive oil, the COOC decided on a standard which is actually stricter than the international one. A California producer today could make an oil with .8% acidity, which would qualify as extra virgin by the IOC but which would not be allowed the COOC extra virgin seal. That same oil might sit on the grocery shelf next to an imported refined oil which is labeled as extra virgin. This also didn't sit well with some. COOC founder but lapsed member Ridgely Evers who owns the DaVero Sonoma label, was quoted in the LA Times article as saying "we are confident in the quality of our oil . . . I don't think I sell a single bottle less because I don't have a seal on the label." Tasting panel politics and rancor have led panel leaders Paul Vossen and Roberto Zecca to quit or retire.
Early efforts to educate the public on the COOC Seal were expensive and took energy away from the primary mission of the COOC to help California olive oil producers with growing, marketing and selling their product. Precious dollars spent on the seal (the "consumer confidence" part of the COOC's mission) were lost in a sea of money promoting other olive oil food awards, labels and certificates.
The tasting panel should be complemented on their efforts. Composed of volunteers, many paid thousands of dollars to be trained in the formal ritual of detecting olive oil defects. After extensive testing, the US panel was recognized in 2001. As the industry has grown, the number of oils submitted has at times exceeded the heroic efforts and the taste palates of the volunteers. Many travel long distances to participate and have voyaged overseas on their own dime to hone their tasting skills.
The IOC periodically makes sure the many taste panels throughout the world are uniform in their judgments by submitting "standard" oils with known defects. Last fall the panel failed the test and lost their certification authority. The panel can regain their authority with further training and testing in the 3rd quarter of 2006. In the interim, the COOC will help producers send their oils to other IOC approved taste panels for certification. A producer in California can take the round-about way of sending their oil to an Australian panel to qualify for the California COOC seal.
At the January annual COOC meeting in Monterey, CA, the news of the taste panel's failure was not fully disclosed, an omission which later angered many members. Explanation of the problem would not have detracted a bit from an otherwise excellent program and would have been helpful to start debate on whether the COOC should be administering the tasting panel and seal. President Karen Guth has since posted an explanation in the members only section of the COOC website.
The COOC president was quoted in the L.A. Times article as saying the organization would gladly hand the certification business to a responsible third party. Executive director Patricia Darragh has said the organization would rather concentrate on point of sale advertisers and store educational materials. Bob Bauer, president of the NAOOA at the time of the USDA comment period, requested the USDA take the job of creating a taste panel certified by the IOC.
Instead of testing every oil made, some California olive farmers prefer the way it is done in the EU where oil producers self certify their oil and are not required to pay for panel testing. A regulatory body may then do spot tests of oil on the market shelf and penalize producers who don't measure up. Producers would also be susceptible to civil action from consumers.
News of the panel's failing could not come at a worse time in regards to consumer confidence. Huge FDA seizures of imported soy oil labeled as olive oil and lower grades labeled as extra virgin have hit the news lately. Hopefully the COOC's taste panels' failure and the publicity surrounding fraudulent oil will spur the USDA to take action and come up with a standard.