California olive oil producers want extra virgin to mean extra virgin
Representatives of the booming California olive oil industry are pressing the federal government to adopt European labeling standards in an effort to stop unscrupulous bottlers from mislabeling cheap olive oil as high quality products.
The California Olive Oil Council, an industry association, petitioned the United States Department of Agriculture three years ago to replace its archaic olive oil classification system that has held since 1948.
Contrary to popular belief, terms such as extra virgin, virgin, etc., mean absolutely nothing in the U.S. market. The USDA classifies olive oil into four groups: fancy, choice, standard or substandard. In other words, a U.S. package that purports to contain the highest quality extra virgin oil, could contain any of the USDA grades. Oil in European countries are classified under the international standards that include the familiar extra virgin, virgin, etc., labels, but the U.S. government has never adopted them.
“Right now,” COOC president Alan Greene told the Associated Press, “there is a feeling that a lot of the oil labeled extra virgin on retail store shelves is in fact a lower grade.”
The groups want the USDA to test olive oil and set up a taste panel to prevent refined olive oil from being passed off as extra virgin. While the USDA rules under consideration would carry no penalties for violators, the COOC believes that threats of litigation from competitors would make producers comply.
Under international standards, an olive oil must be made of fruit not too ripe and quickly pressed without solvents, heat or intense pressure, to garner the extra virgin label. It must also meet requirements for acidity to bear the coveted label.
While most cases of fraud involve lower grades of olive oil being passed off as the premier extra virgin, there have been cases of low-grade vegetable oils being passed off as extra virgin olive oil. A case in point: last February, federal officials seized more than 20,000 gallons of oil'some labeled extra virgin olive oil'from a New Jersey warehouse. The whole lot turned out to be soybean oil, which costs about 20 percent as much as olive oil to produce.
The USDA is preparing to solicit public input on changing the classifications system by the end of the year, with a decision coming sometime after that.
In the past decade, U.S. sales of olive oil have doubled and a third of all cooking oils used in U.S. homes are olive oils. California leads the nation in olive oil production with production rising from 250,000 gallons in 2001-2002 to about 400,000 gallons in 2004-2005. Industry experts predict that current production levels in California will double by 2010.