International standards group rebuts study on olive oil quality


The food fight over olive oil authenticity continues to roil as an international olive oil standards group has issued a scathing rebuttal to a recent research report that cast doubt on the quality of the product found in California grocery shelves.

Last month, researchers from the UC Davis Olive Center and Australian Oils Research Laboratory, a governmental research center, reported that more than two-thirds of common brands of imported extra-virgin olive oil found in California grocery stores aren’t what they claim to be.

The results were based on tests conducted on bottles that were labeled 100% extra-virgin olive oil from both domestic and imported producers, and bought this year from retailers in Los Angeles, Sacramento and the Bay Area. According to the report, researchers said they found that some of the samples tested did not pass chemical analyses, the analysis of an expert tasting panel, or both, and therefore should not have been labeled extra-virgin.

But the International Olive Council, a Madrid organization whose product standards are the basis for new federal olive oil regulations, criticized the report’s findings and methodology.

The researchers sampled only 52 bottles and 19 brands, too small a survey to be “statistically significant,” according to the council’s statement issued July 19. The group pointed out that in some cases, the report “does not provide customary details such as the date of collection, best before date, pack type, labeling information.”

In comparison, the council said it annually conducts chemical tests on 200 samples of imported oils sold in the U.S. as part of its routine quality control efforts, and “anomalies are detected in less than 10%” of the samples, according to the statement.

The council also criticized the researchers for failing to have independent tests confirm the quality anomalies, and for using scientific methodologies that the council found unreliable.

The North American Olive Oil Assn., which represents most of the companies that import olive oil into the U.S., was also critical of the results.

“Of the olive oil sold in stores throughout the U.S. tested by the NAOOA, on average approximately 99% meets the internationally recognized and science-based IOC standards,” association President Bob Bauer said in a statement. “Our testing represents a true picture of what American consumers buy in grocery and specialty stores.”

But Dan Flynn, head of the UC Davis Olive Center, said he and the researchers stand behind the report and the data outlined in a 207-page appendix. The findings were “conducted using an [International Olive Council]-accredited lab using official IOC tests. The Australian Oils Research Laboratory does excellent work,” Flynn said in a statement.

Olive oils tested included five California brands and 14 popular imports, among them Bertolli and Pompeian. Retailers included Ralphs, Safeway, Whole Foods Market and Wal-Mart.

(Officials at these retailers and manufacturers have either stood behind their products or declined to comment pending their further review of the report.)

The UC Davis Olive Center findings, which came out as the U.S. Department of Agriculture rolls out new standards aimed at cleaning up what has long been a slippery business, sent a shockwave through the industry, which has faced mounting criticism over accurate labeling practices.

The purity issue also remains a serious concern for some consumers. In the past, some state agencies have uncovered oils labeled 100% extra-virgin olive oil that were blended with cheaper canola or nut oils, which can be a serious health threat to people with allergies. (No such mixing was found in the UC Davis report.)

Money is also at stake, because extra-virgin oil can be marketed as a premium retail product. A typical 750-milliliter bottle of olive oil can sell for $8 or less, while the same size bottle of high-end extra virgin oil can go for $12 or more.

The report underscores problems in an industry that pulls in more than $700 million a year in U.S. retail sales. Industry officials generally agree that the “extra-virgin” designation is proper for oil that is cold-processed, has low acidity and has higher levels of healthful fats and antioxidants.