The Cresting Wave of Olive Oil

These are historic days in olive oil. In the last three weeks I’ve participated in several gatherings that felt to me like milestones in oil quality, none of which, I believe, would have happened even a year ago.

On January 12th, I spoke at the Olive Oil Flavor & Quality, a seminar in Napa valley California co-sponsored by The Culinary Institute of America and the UC Davis Olive Center, to educate buyers and chefs in the retail, food service, and food distribution sectors – people who aren’t buying olive oil off the shelf in supermarkets, but in bulk, often in enormous quantities, for restaurants, hotels, hospitals and elsewhere. I’ve been to many olive oil conferences before, but this the first time I’ve seen one to educate buyers who usually act on price far more than quality – finally someone is preaching not to the converted, but to those who often have little idea what quality olive oil really is, but buy vast amounts of the stuff. People who a year ago were, in most cases, asking exclusively for low-cost olive oil are now starting to ask about quality – and to shun fraudulent oils.

There were chefs, oil producers from four continents, importers, food writers, store managers, even a few adulterators in the audience! Paul Vossen, experienced agronomist and sensory expert, gave a great speech about how olive oil is made and where things can go wrong (which should be available at the conference website soon, along with other presentations), and talks and demos by top chefs Bill Briwa and Paul Bartolotta and by the Culinary Institute’s strategic leader Greg Drescher, highlighted a fascinating and challenging day, during which I saw a remarkable level of interest and wide-open debate. (See the Olive Oil Times’ coverage of the event here.)

A week later, on January 19th, at the first annual Olive Conference in Dixon, California, 300 olive farmers gathered to talk about working together to protect and grow their industry, through a federal marketing order that would set and enforce a tough new quality standard in olive oil, first on American-made olive oil, then on foreign product as well. This time, folks who until recently had preferred not to work together – and who often, in the fiercely independent way of farmers, had mistrusted one another – had now come together to plan a join way forward. A superb presentation by Gregg Kelley, head of California Olive Ranch, set the tone for the meeting, and the industry overview by Paul Miller, of the Australian Olive Association, was one of the best presentations I’ve ever seen, drawing on his decade-long experience in the trenches of the olive oil quality battle throughout the world.

Then, after one more week, on January 26th, I testified with a number of others at the California State Senate hearing on olive oil quality, where the widespread problems in the industry, including rampant olive oil fraud, were openly discussed before a panel of state senators, all of whom followed proceedings with rapt attention. (One senator called this meeting the most interesting informational hearing he’d ever attended.) Watch the proceedings (Part I and Part II), including a magnificent outing of olive oil fraudsters by Mike Bradley, which brought down the house. (More here and here.)

These are just highlights from what has been a remarkable two months in olive oil. I’ll be writing more about each of these events in greater detail, in forthcoming posts over the coming days, but for now, I’ll say that America is finally taking its first real strides towards taking the lead in world olive oil quality. An enormous amount of work remains to be done, by oil-makers, regulators and consumers – and everyone in between – but momentum is building. Up with Truth in Olive Oil!

Comments

Your book really woke me up to what is going on in the world of Olive Oil. I have tried to get information on the source of oil for Annie's Organic Olive oil however they have not responded when I asked where it comes from only that it is "organic". Really makes me wonder. I am buying local CA oils from now on. Thanks for your work on this important food.

Wow! I am stunned and exhilarated. Keep up the good work

I'm fascinated by the drive to get more truth in advertising...just because your olive oil passed thru the french town of whatever, does not make french olive oil. I would really be interested to know if your company deals with Monsanto?

The problems in olive oil is the same as those which plague so many other agricultural products, problems which Monsanto and their ilk contribute their scientific firepower to worsening: reducing regional variety to global anonymity.

I first heard about this issue on iWineradio and I'm so glad to have found this site through Lynn's show. It's depressing to think that all of these years I've been buying olive oil thinking that I'm getting the needed health benefits and I may not actually be buying true olive oil.

I'm definitely keeping an eye on this blog.

Not to worry Victoria, we've all been there until very recently, eating crappy oil and thinking it was good. Or rather, thinking that this was what olive oil was - all it could be. This is true even around the Mediterranean, where people are attached to certain taste flaws. Where I live in Liguria, and just over the French border in Provence, locals have eaten oil made from overripe olives and (frequently) stored in sacks before milling, giving it the classic taste flaw of fustiness. Give my neighbors a big fresh peppery oil and, after they finish coughing, they roll their eyes and accuse you of trying to poison them. Sometimes ignorance and deep-rooted provincialism converge.

Throughout your book and your site it is very clear that you are quite a fan of one Oakland-based company. Interesting because their business tactics are often anti competitive and it appears that they require stores that one would believe to be independent to carry only products they supply. At one point one of their officers set up a Facebook page for the sole purpose of providing hate posts about another California retailer. These practices would seem at odds with your philosophy.

Colleen - Thanks for your comment. Here's my position: I'm not in the olive oil business. I'm in the business of writing about great (and lousy) olive oil, and those who bring it to us. Among the folks I have met in the olive oil trade, the people at Veronica Foods, the company you reference, have struck me as among the most effective at bringing great oil to the market, throughout the USA. They are also among the most interesting characters from a writer's point of view. How they are as competitors in the industry, and how they use Facebook, aren't things I know about, or particularly care about (though having gotten to know them somewhat on a personal level, I'd expect them to be tough but fair competitors, in a market where tough and unfair is sadly the norm). Fact is, in this industry where one simply cannot trust labels, the only way to home in on first-rate extra virgin olive oil is to know the people who supply it, and the oil they source. I know these people, have sampled their oils on countless occasions (several times unannounced in their various stores), and find it to be uniformly excellent. They are putting this excellent oil out into the circulatory system of American foods, nationwide, in a way that no one else I know of has done. For this unique contribution, I celebrate their work. I hope this makes sense to you.

Colleen you really hit the nail on the head about Veronica Foods!

In U.S. antitrust law, the Sherman Act addresses single-firm conduct by providing a remedy against "[e]very person who shall monopolize, or attempt to monopolize...any part of the trade or commerce among the several States."[

Jane - Don't you think you're exaggerating a bit? Even in my highly incomplete list of recommendations, I mention a number of purveyors of olive oil, both small-scale and large companies (e.g. Williams Sonoma) that have nothing to do with Veronica Foods. VF doesn't even own the stores at all, they just supply the oils. And exclusive supplier agreements are standard business practice in many industries. In fact, in an industry as murky as olive oil, thank goodness they are: this is the only reason I feel I can mention VF stores without visiting every single one: I know the single source from which all their oils come.

Colleen and Jane,

As a customer of Veronica Foods and owner of an Olive Oil & Balsamic Vinegar store, I can attest that I have never been pressured to only carry Veronica Foods products. In fact, I have carried products from a variety of different suppliers in my store. The plain truth is that the quality of product I get from Veronica Foods is light years better than anything else on the available market. Not sure where you received your information, but the anti-competitive practices you allude to are not accurate.

I've no idea how far it got, but a couple of years ago the University of Córdoba (Spain) was developing a spectrometry test to determine if olive oil was being adulterated. If and when it is available it becomes fairly easy for private individuals or institutions to file false labelling complaints against violators.

In the meantime there's a simple test that consumers can use to at least eliminate impossible olive oils. www.poolred.es provides constantly updated spot prices for Spanish olive oil. Currently at 1.80 euros a kilo of EVOO, this translates into about $2.15 a litre - millside in a 25,000 kilo tanker truck. Assume that any 'bottled in Italy' olive oil worth its salt contains around 75% Spanish and calculate the cost of getting that tanker from the province of Jaén to a Mediterranean port, loaded on to a ship and delivered to Italy, placed in bottles and on to a container to New Jersey from whence it is redistributed to store shelves. Add the markup and one gets an idea of the minimum price an utterly undistinguished 'Italian' extra virgin can be sold for in the U.S.

A friend of mine, btw, was Veronica Foods' buyer in Spain for a number of years. Mike Bradley's insistence on quality verged on religious fervour.

Congrats on including Castillo de Canena on your list. Another Jaén olive oil that demonstrates the gamut of flavours that can be coaxed out of the lowly picual with property harvesting and handling is Fuenroble.

Italy uses a great deal of

Italy uses a great deal of Greek extra virgin olive oil because 75-80% is EVOO, while the % for Italian and Spanish are 45% and 30% of all olive oil extracted. But the largest olive oil companies in Italy are owned by Spanish companies that do 'blends', and other multinationals that also 'blend'. They like Greek EVOO because it improves their 'blends'.

Tom, Team Gustare was pleased to see both you and Mike Bradley (our exclusive importer) testify before the CA Senate last month. We are proud to be a special part of the movement to improve consumer confidence in the "quality & authenticity" for 0-defect EVOlive Oil.
Many of our frequent guests on the Cape and now in Welllesley mention your book or your informative NPR-Fresh Air interview.
Please plan to visit our tasting rooms for an interesting book signing tour while in the Boston-New England area.
All the best

No mention of the web retailer Olio2Go? They seem to know their stuff and have a nice variety of good Italian oils.
Not affiliated with them, I'm just a lover of good oil.

Olio2Go certainly has many great producers. My only gripes: lots and lots of 2010 oils, some with "SALE" beside them, others not; and prices in many cases well north of $40/lit. This is in my view unreasonable retail markup, esp for a mail-order place.

Pete - Many thanks for the apt comment, and the excellent post, which eloquently points out the twin problems – lost taxes and economic output – caused by mislabling. I'm going to be looking into this more in a future post, and maybe we can get a dialogue going around these issues. Thanks again! Tom

Hi Tom,
I was wondering what you know and what you can tell me about FAIRWAY markets
(based in NY) varieties of olive oils from various countries all of which are stated as being 100% organic? Thank you very much for all the super sleuth work that we all benefit from!

Tom congratulations for your very informative book and activity in raising awareness over olive oil quality. I believe there’s room both for good and bad olive oil depending on people preferences and spending power. However I would argue that the olive oil market has a long way to go towards being fair towards producers and consumers.

I think that as long as the discussion is about the quality of olive oil the arguments go wasted; sounds like some romantics that want to pay $40 or more per liter of olive oil (to put that into perspective nobody argues against $50/bottle wine or for the meaning of its various varietals). Olive oil is considered a commodity by the majority? It might change but it will take time.

In the meantime there’s a strong economic case against adulteration and counterfeiting though: there’s a lot of unreported profit and foregone tax for the state (in a $700 million market you make a guess on the extent of that to drive the point home). At the same time there are so many quality producers that can’t survive or invest in new plantations in the Mediterranean (that by the way face economic crisis) and in the US. If products were labeled correctly and fraud minimized then the consumer would be able to differentiate between products and a lot of jobs would be created both in US and abroad from new growers (more so if US consumption moves towards Mediterranean levels). See my blog post for more on that and thanks so much for the inspiration for it. http://t.co/5Qv4nfdM

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