June 05, 2004
Olive Oil Producers are eager to win tasting competitions and achieve official certification for their oil. The awards hopefully translate into a medal or seal on the label, recognition for a superior product with a commensurate increase in sales. But there has been a proliferation of medals and seals available and they aren’t all created equally. The ones that industry players covet and respect may not mean much to consumers. Other awards which are promoted with a sophisticated media campaign funded by royalties from agribusiness giants may get more attention. More seals may lead to consumer confusion, disinterest or distrust.
Olive Oil producers in California generally respect the results of the L.A. County Fair judging and the California Olive Oil Council (COOC) seal as legitimate indicators of quality. That can’t be said for the ACI awards described above.
The problem is the awards are founded on a flawed premise. The insinuation is that there is an “institute” of chefs who cheerfully judge products which have not even asked to be judged. In reality the ACI is a business that is in the business of awarding medals and receiving money for it. Their process is designed to maximize royalty income, not choose the best oil. It is not surprising that none of the oils chosen for judging have ever won an award in a more rigorous venue, or that they represent oils with the maximum possible sales, which maximizes royalties.
The ACI awards are heavily promoted and have turned up on multiple products in multiple categories. They sometimes seem to pander to the most mediocre of American tastes. The process generates questions; some possibly elitist. Isn’t giving a gold medal in a mass market/average category like giving an A to the best C student? And if we give an A to the best D student and the best B student, there will certainly be too many A’s out there. The more categories created, the more medals will be awarded. This leads to a medal on nearly every product, with a diminution in the value of any kind of certification.
When consumers see Russell Stover Candies at the local drugstore with a gold medal award, do they understand the judging process (comparison with other drug store chocolates) or will they be under the misconception that its the best chocolate out there? Monetarily it makes sense for ACI to refrain from comparing boutique to mass market & from really finding the best product. Why compare a Vermont cheddar to Cheeze Whiz when you risk giving the best taste award to the product with the smallest sales and therefore the lowest royalties.
Slow Food, an organization which promotes taking the time to enjoy regional foods rich in local culture, gives awards in the opposite manner. The smallest producers which take the greatest care with ingredients and preparation are usually the winners. Slow Food looks for people who promote and preserve niche or regional products which are typically made in small quantities. Slow Food does not receive royalties from award winners, it gives them cash prizes.
The ACI also gives awards for products which seem rather ephemeral. They recently gave an award for best bib lettuce. Lettuce quality and taste change with every lettuce, the time of year, climate, shipping, etc. While it seems reasonable if a prize cabbage wins a gold medal at the county fair, it seems silly to give the farmer a medal for every piece of produce he will grow in the next few years. It would seem that a Good Housekeeping seal given to a toaster would be more relevant a year later than an award given to a lettuce. The COOC gets around this by making sure that their seal is only valid for the batch of oil produced that year and submitted for testing. The ACI award has no such limitation.
While the ACI awards may work for some products, olive oil has its special problems. The California Olive Oil Council has been fighting for years for a way to certify that oil sold in this country conforms to quality criteria used in virtually every other country in the world. The COOC awards a seal to members of the organization who pass a series of rigorous tests. COOC tasters, (many of whom are chefs or food industry professionals) must pass an international training program and be certified by the International Olive Oil Council (IOOC). The seal guarantees that not only does the oil taste good but that chemically it conforms to international labeling standards. Oils submitted to the tasters must first be tested for acidity level by an independent lab. The producer must sign a seal agreement attesting to the truthful labeling and provenance of the oil.
At a recent olive oil tasting, the ACI method of determining judging criteria came into question. The standard procedures used internationally for decades for judging olive oil were either unknown or tossed out the window. The chefs simply brainstormed before the tasting to decide what the judging criteria would be. Attributes such as color, which traditionally is never judged, were considered along with taste. There was no assurance that the chefs were trained to judge olive oil. One could argue that they don't need to be trained, that they should have the taste of the common man to pick products that would be of mass appeal. But then why not just pick the common man to judge the products?
There was no certification that the products were truthfully labeled. Olive oil importers admit that they use more lax standards for labeling the same oil sold in the US vs. internationally. Nor did the ACI ask for guarantees that the provenance of the oil was accurate, a big problem with mass market oils.
California producers should worry that shoppers who see premium (and more expensive) California Extra Virgin Olive oil with the COOC seal next to Bertolli Extra Virgin Olive Oil with the ACI seal will think the same thought and effort went into each certification.
On the olive oil shelf consumers are dazzled with the COOC seal, ACI and ACF medals, Leone d'oro, and stars for exhibitions won years ago. This leads to a sort of medal fatigue among shoppers who may stop paying attention to any of it. Besides educating consumers about the health, taste, and quality aspects of olive oil, the industry should take a stand concerning medals and seals which water down the value of more rigorous awards.