U.S. Olive Oil Makers Say Imports Aren't Always So 'Extra Virgin'

Dec 6, 2012
Originally published on December 10, 2012 8:40 am

Italians may still be light-years ahead when it comes to gelato, but when it comes to extra-virgin olive oil? Watch out: U.S. producers are on it.

Across the country, this small industry is expanding. Out West, there's California Olive Ranch, where production has grown tenfold over the past six years; it's now producing upwards of 2 million gallons of olive oil a year. Down South, Cowgirl Brands in Dallas is putting, yes, Texas on the olive oil map. There's even a Native American brand, Seka Hills.

Currently, these domestic producers make up only a tiny sliver of the olive oil sold in the U.S. The remaining 98 percent comes from foreign producers in countries including Italy, Chile, Spain and Tunisia.

And if you listen to my radio story, you'll hear the complaints that domestic producers described to the U.S. International Trade Commission during a hearing Wednesday. The commission is investigating competition in the industry. Basically, U.S. producers say their foreign competitors are not playing fair. One issue: mislabeling.

"Consumers oftentimes aren't receiving what they think they're purchasing when they buy a bottle of [imported] olive oil," says Gregg Kelley, CEO of California Olive Ranch.

In September, Consumer Reports found that many of the big names in imported olive oil, such as Bertolli and Filippo Berio, don't taste good enough to meet the criteria to be "extra-virgin." The term refers to olive oil made from crushed olives without the use of high heat or chemical solvents.

"Americans consumers who buy these false extra virgins are being duped," Tom Mueller, author of Extra-Virginity: The Sublime And Scandalous World of Olive Oil, told the commission.

"Major recent surveys of olive oil quality suggest that two-thirds of olive oil currently sold as 'extra virgin' in America is mislabeled: They fail to meet the major legal definitions of the extra-virgin grade," Mueller said.

So, what's the best tip for getting fresh extra-virgin olive oil?

Look for a harvest date on the bottle, Mueller tells The Salt. For example, on California Olive Ranch oils, which are sold at major grocery chains including Safeway, Kroger, Wegman's and Wal-Mart, you'll see the date stamped on the bottle. Many foreign producers don't include this information in their packaging.

Mueller explains that freshness is key because olive oil is not like wine: It does not get better with age. In fact, both the flavor and the nutrients in olive oil deteriorate over time.

In the new year, I plan to take a deeper look at olive oil, deconstructing its potential health benefits. But for now, suffice it to say, extra virgin is full of the good stuff — polyphenols and other compounds that are believed to have anti-inflammatory properties.

The North American Olive Oil Association — which, despite its name, actually represents many foreign producers of olive oil — rejects the U.S. producers' complaint that importers are not playing fair.

"I think the complaint is highly exaggerated," says Eryn Balch of the NAOOA.

On the whole, she says, her members comply with labeling requirements, and their products are routinely tested to make sure they're not adulterated with other oils. The test results are not reported publicly.

"We have ongoing and consistent testing throughout the year," says Balch. And like domestic producers, she says her organization supports additional testing and a new national standard.

The U.S. International Trade Commission's report will be published sometime in 2013.

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As a nation, we're consuming more olive oil than ever before. And the bottles labeled the extra virgin, product of Italy, are the top-sellers. But as NPR's Allison Aubrey reports, U.S. farmers from Texas to California are producing more and more olive oil these days. And they have a problem with all these imports. They say, in many cases, consumers aren't getting what they paid for.

ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: I had never really heard of Texas olive oil or much about olive oil from Georgia or California. But domestic production is expanding, and the people who produce it met up in Washington yesterday to testify before the U.S. International Trade Commission. The commission is investigating competition in the olive oil industry. And the complaint that domestic producers have: they say their foreign competitors are not playing fair.

GREGG KELLEY: First and foremost, consumers oftentimes aren't receiving what they think they're purchasing when they buy a bottle of extra virgin olive oil.

AUBREY: That's Gregg Kelley, the CEO of California Olive Ranch. He says the extra virgin olive oil he produces in California is just that. It's produced without heat or solvents. It's tested for purity, and it's stamped with a harvest date so consumers have a way of knowing it's fresh. This matters because the flavor and the beneficial nutrients of olive oil deteriorate over time. But Kelley says his foreign competitors rarely put this information on the label, and oftentimes, what is on the label of imported oil is misleading. To make his point, he took us on a field trip to a Safeway grocery store, where he inspected the labels on bottles of olive oil.

KELLEY: So this bottle says extra virgin on the label, but importantly in big, red letters...

AUBREY: Says, imported from Italy. So this must be from Italy, right?

KELLEY: One would think this is Italian olive oil.

AUBREY: Which American consumers will pay top dollar for. Kelley says many people believe that the finest and most authentic olive oil comes from Italy but...

KELLEY: We turn the bottle around. An inspection of the back label has in very small writing, E. V. olive oil, so I would assume that means extra virgin olive oil, from E-S-T-N-C-L.

AUBREY: Which means the oils comes from the countries of Tunisia, Chile and Spain.

So these olives weren't grown in Italy?

KELLEY: These olives were not grown in Italy, and this oil likely was not produced in Italy. At one point in time, it must've hit the Italian shores before making its long trip across the Atlantic Ocean.

AUBREY: Kelley told the trade commission that these misleading labels are not his only complaint. There's also the issue of what qualifies as extra virgin olive oil. Currently, there's no commercial definition in the U.S. He'd like to see a national standard and mandatory testing. The trade commission heard testimony from scientist Selina Wang of UC Davis, who ran tests on foreign olive oils labeled as extra virgin. And she says many of them didn't past muster for purity or taste.

DR. SELINA WANG: We've done 207 samples in the last two years, and our results are consistent. About 65 percent of supermarket olive oil are not extra virgin.

AUBREY: Now, the trade association that represents many foreign producers of olive oil was also at the hearing. It's called the North American Olive Oil Association. Eryn Balch is the executive vice president. She says the UC Davis taste test were biased because they were funded by California producers. And she rejects the criticism that importers are not playing fair.

ERYN BALCH: I think the complaint is highly exaggerated.

AUBREY: She says, on the whole, her members comply with labeling requirements, and their products are routinely tested to make sure they're not adulterated with other oils.

BALCH: We have ongoing consistent testing throughout the year.

AUBREY: And Balch says they support additional testing and a new national standard. For now, U.S. olive oil producers have only 2 percent of the market. But they're growing quickly, and the trade commission is expected to issue its report next year. Allison Aubrey, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.