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California adopts new olive oil standards

California olive oil makers score a victory as state approves new standards

California has approved new quality standards for olive oil, dealing a major victory for large-scale state producers hoping to reverse years of European market dominance.

The California Department of Food and Agriculture on Thursday adopted most of the standards proposed by the Olive Oil Commission of California, a group of local growers and millers who called for new testing and labeling requirements.

"California agriculture has an enviable reputation for high-quality products sought by consumers here and around the world," said Karen Ross, secretary of the state Department of Food and Agriculture. "We believe the time has come to designate a ‘California-grown’ olive oil, and these standards are an excellent way to do it."

The rules only apply to California olive oil makers who produce a minimum of 5,000 gallons a year. An estimated 100 olive growers and about a dozen millers meet that minimum.

The proposal raised the ire of olive oil importers, who viewed the standards as a potential blueprint for market restrictions down the road.

Virtually all of the 293,000 metric tons of olive oil consumed in the U.S. last year originated from European countries such as Spain and Italy.

California has been chipping away at the imports, helping expand U.S. production to 10,000 metric tons last year, a 10-fold increase from 2007. Local producers say American olive oil has the potential to succeed in the same fashion as American wine.

Led by the state’s biggest brand, California Olive Ranch, local olive oil makers have been aggressively touting their products and bashing imports, which have been sullied by reports of fraud and adulteration within the European olive oil industry.

There are currently no federal laws strictly regulating olive oil in the U.S. The U.S. Department of Agriculture issues only voluntary certification for olive oil.

The new standards would add a new level of enforcement in California and call for testing that would look for evidence of adulteration or defects like rancidity.

It would also do away with popular marketing terms such as "light," which describes oil that has been refined with chemicals or additives (not less caloric) and "pure," a mixture of virgin and refined olive oils. Both would have to be labeled as some form of refined oil.

"It's a great step forward," said Richard Cantrill, chief science officer and technical director for the American Oil Chemists' Society. "Any push for better quality olive oil is a good thing."

The new standards would take effect Sept. 26, the California Department of Food and Agriculture said.

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