Plagued with deception and rooted in tradition, the olive oil industry is ripe with opportunity for companies who tighten their standards and improve traceability.
In 1976 a chardonnay from Chateau Montelena in Napa, California outscored a number of French wines in a blind taste test conducted in Paris by eleven skilled judges (most of them French). French wines were known for superior quality and taste, and everyone was sure the results of this blind tasting would reflect France’s place at the top of the supply chain, what with their better grapes, authentic manufacturing and accomplished winemakers.
However, the tasting, now known as the Judgment of Paris, placed California wines best in every category, shocking wine connoisseurs the world over, including the judges. This event put California wine on the map—and the same thing may be brewing for olive oil.
Extra-virgin olive oil, heralded for its polyphenols and anti-inflammatory benefits, is made by churning tons of olives—pits and all—into a paste. The paste is run through a centrifuge to separate the oil, which flows out into a vat. Oil that is extracted using chemicals or other processes isn’t allowed to be labeled “extra virgin.” To be rated such, oil must have a fruity, bitter or pungent flavor, in addition to free acidity lower than 0.8 percent, and exhibit none of 16 official taste flaws (such as “musty” and “cucumber”) put in place by the International Olive Council (IOC), the governing body for the olive oil industry. Rooted in handpicked tradition and based in Madrid, the IOC represents 23 member countries and 85-95% of the world’s olive oil production.
Changing the game
But across the Atlantic, an 18-year-old company called California Olive Ranch is upsetting tradition. The privately held company, whose orchards are an hour north of Sacramento, estimates it accounted for 65 percent of the olive oil produced in the U.S. in 2015. They’ve developed a tree—and harvesting technique—where no olive is touched by hand. The trees are more like large bushes planted in neat, tight rows that allow a mechanical harvester to strip the olives from the trees to a conveyor belt where they get plopped into a truck and then milled into 3,200 gallons of oil within an hour, reducing the opportunity for rancidity and moving fresh olives from tree to bottle in just moments rather than days. Traditionalists sneer at this type of “factory farming” of olives, especially Jean-Louis Barjol, executive director of the IOC. "It is rather a question of specialized vs commodity product," he said in a recent interview with Bloomberg Businessweek.
But Gregory Kelly, CEO at California Olive Ranch, says it’s not him that needs to defend the quality of his products, but rather the mainstream sellers of olive oil (many of whom are IOC members) who have been accused of selling low-quality, adulterated EVOO to the U.S. market for decades. Kelley says much of the IOC members’ so-called extra-virgin olive oil is mixed with cheaper oils, flawed by sloppy harvesting or packaging that can cause rancid-tasting oil, and processed with excessive heat (for a longer shelf life and travel across seas) that strips out healthful properties. And it’s not just Kelley pointing the finger.
The olive oil industry has been flooded with fraud investigations and even prompted the launch of a new anti-fraud “super” label from the Italian Farmers Confederation to certify the origin of Italian olive oil.
Here are just a few recent headlines that illuminate the state of the industry:
- Tests indicate that imported "extra virgin" olive oil often fails international and USDA standards (University of California, Davis)
- The scam of olive oil, and its antidote (Forbes)
- Italy moves to toughen penalties for olive oil fraud (New York Times)
But in an interesting peculiarity of the industry, many of the fraud results have been based on tastings and not found in acidity chemical tests. The prime investigative tool into a recent probe against Italian producers accused of passing virgin oil (which can have acidity up to 2 percent and a limited number of taste flaws) as extra-virgin oil was simply little tasting glasses, tinted blue to obscure the color of the oil.
Taste vs. acidity
It all begs the question: Is a taste test really the best way to rate extra-virgin olive oil, especially since lower quality products can and have long been sold to American palates that just don’t know any better? The concept of a flavorful, grassy oil used more as a condiment than a cooking fat is new to most Americans. Though consumption of olive oil has tripled in the U.S. since 1990, it’s still only 0.8 liters per capita—one-tenth of what a typical Italian uses in a year.
So, what should olive oil really taste like and what should we look for in a high quality EVOO? In a recent taste test conducted by America’s Test Kitchen and printed in the November 2015 issue of Cook’s Illustrated, the judging panel gave its highest marks to oils that were “lively, bright and full-bodied, with flavors that range from peppery to buttery depending on the variety of olives used and how ripe they are when harvested.”
The winner of the contest? California Olive Ranch Everyday Extra Virgin Olive Oil. Judges said it was “fragrant” and “fruity” with a “complex finish.” Way down at the bottom of the list? Madrid-based Bertolli Extra Virgin Olive Oil, a long-standing member of the IOC and one of those companies recently alleged of unfair trade practices. “Nothing special. Could be vegetable oil in here,” remarked one of the judges about the Bertolli oil. It should be noted, however, that not all Italian brands fell short. Lucini Premium Select Extra Virgin Olive Oil, a pricey Italian oil, also received the rare “recommended” mark from the Cook’s Illustrated judging panel and was praised for being “incredibly rich,” “bright” and “buttery” with a pleasantly peppery aftertaste.
The USDA establishes its own standards
The U.S. is primed for its day in the yellow-green glow of the olive oil spotlight. In 2010, at the urging of domestic producers, the USDA adopted chemical and sensory standards for olive oil grades similar to those established by the IOC in 1959. Among the chemical standards: An oil must not exceed certain levels of free fatty acids and peroxides, which would indicate olive deterioration, poor processing and oxidation. To meet sensory criteria, an oil must taste not just flawless—or have what experts call “zero defects”—but also possess good fruity flavor. And in California, a state where olive oil production has grown tenfold in the past decade, even stricter acidity standards were established in 2014.
After all, there’s growing incentive to tighten standards in a process where every stage affects the quality of the oil—and it’s more than just national pride. Italy exports billions of dollars’ worth of olive oil, including hundreds of millions to the U.S., the world’s third-largest olive oil market, with $2 billion in sales. And, though 6 in 10 Americans never buy olive oil, California Olive Ranch is betting on America's love of the good stuff to take off—that is, once we REALLY embrace the taste it, smear it on our bread instead of butter, and generously drizzle it over our chicken, seafood, soups and salads. Soon, they wager, we’ll be slurping it down just like the Italians do, connoisseurs of fine wine.