Is It Really Extra Virgin Olive Oil?

On July 14, the UC Davis Olive Center, part of that school’s College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences, released a paper reporting that 69% of randomly selected imported Extra Virgin Olive Oil (EVOO) brands had “defective flavors such as rancid, fusty, and musty” and “did not meet international and US standards.” This compares to a failure rate of only 10% for the California-produced EVOO they sampled. The North American Olive Oil Association (NAOOA), a trade organization that represents the foreign producers whose oils flunked the UC Davis exam, promptly released a statement claiming the tests were flawed.

“We sample more than 200 olive oils a year and conduct rigorous chemical analysis through independent labs,” NAOOA president Bob Bauer explained. “We’re finding that less than 10 percent of the oils tested have any problems and they, in total, typically represent less than 1 percent of the market.”

The UC Davis report was summarized in an Associated Press story that was reprinted in dozens of newspapers and copied onto hundreds of blogs without, in almost all cases, any amplification or investigation. The blogs (I checked 30) did not list the brands tested (see below) or link to the UC Davis paper, thus making them sensational rather than informational.

UC Davis is a prestigious university with exemplary credentials in agricultural sciences. But as with many such research projects, the study was underwritten by parties with vested interests in the outcome (Corto Olive, California Olive Ranch, and the California Olive Oil Council). In a telephone interview, Dan Flynn, executive director of the UC Davis Olive Center, explained that the funders “had no involvement in selecting the samples, how they were tested, or how the results were reported. UC Davis has a century-long record of integrity.” Had the results been reversed, he stated, “We would have issued the paper just the same.”

Whom should you trust? Which EVOO do you buy?

Super Mammoth Olives...judge size by noting that this is a one liter jarFirst, a short primer on olive marketing nomenclature. In the U.S., olives are graded by the number per pound, with the very biggest having overblown size names like Mammoth, Colossal, and Jumbo. You can even find Super Mammoths. These names, the story goes, came from an ad agency heavily influenced by blockbuster movie hype. Olive oil grading is similarly bombastic. The finest is Extra Virgin. The next lower grade is Virgin. To me, “Extra Virgin” is akin to “more unique.” Virginity is a yes-or-no quality. And even though this non-sexual usage, as in “virgin wool,” means being used or worked for the first time, how can anything be extra-first?

But since Extra Virgin is the term the industry uses, it better be above reproach.

Nineteen brands (14 imported, 5 California) were assayed at UC Davis and the Australian Oils Research Laboratory, a government research center and testing laboratory in New South Wales certified by the International Olive Council.

Only one of the imported brands, Costco’s Kirkland Organic, had all samples meet the IOC/USDA Extra Virgin Olive Oil sensory standards (olfactory, gustatory, tactile/kinaesthetic) compared with four out of five California oils. The brands, with the fraction that passed, are listed below:

0/3 Bertolli
0/3 Carapelli
1/3 Colavita
1/3 Filippo Berio
2/3 Great Value 100%
3/3 Kirkland Organic
0/3 Mazola
0/3 Mezzetta
1/3 Newman’s Own Organics
0/3 Pompeian
1/3 Rachael Ray
1/3 Safeway Select
2/3 Star
1/3 Whole Food 365 100% Italian

1/2 Bariani
2/2 California Olive Ranch (study funder)
2/2 Corto Olive (study funder)
2/2 Lucero Ascolano
2/2 McEvoy Ranch Organic

In a blog post announcing that its products passed the UC Davis tests, California Olive Ranch wrote:

Part of the reason bogus EVOO can be sold in this country is because there are no federal standards governing quality. The USDA recently adopted standards meant to ensure the bottle of extra virgin olive oil you buy at the store is genuine and not some fake EVOO. The new federal standards, however, are voluntary.

According to the NAOOA, 99% of all olive oil purchased in the U.S. is imported. If California olive oil is actually higher in quality overall, there is much to be gained by pushing for tougher regulation. Until voluntary becomes mandatory, however, the claims and counterclaims will be momentary news…and the products, high-quality and bogus, will stay on the shelves.

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Note: I was puzzled by the olive oil tasting term fusty. I know what a fusty old codger is, but taste…? The best definition I could find was an off flavor due to olives fermenting in piles while in storage, awaiting pressing. Another site opined: hard to describe … somewhat like Justice Potter Stewart’s definition of pornography: “I know it when I see it.”

Suggestion: Whatever olive oil you buy, choose a colored bottle. Light can cause oxidation.

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One Comment on “Is It Really Extra Virgin Olive Oil?

  1. Some years ago, there was an article in the New Yorker about how much imported olive oil isn’t. Huge quantities of other oils were being passed off as olive oils. Wonder if you ever saw that article? We had some wonderful olive oil at Absinthe, in SF, from Sciabatti and Sons. Ever hear of them? Really distinctive and wonderfully tasty (and not the least bit fusty, whatever that means) olive oil. Supposedly there’s an olive oil store opening up near us, right across a side street from the Claremont Hotel, but it’s not managed to open its doors for business yet. We stopped on our way down from Ashland last time we were there in olive country, up around Maxwell or one of those towns along old 99. Got some Arbequina oil which was quite nice, but over time, sitting in its bottle in a dark pantry, even, it lost its sharpness, that lovely bite that lets you know you’ve got the real thing. Is that oxidation damage, even though it’s a dark bottle in a dark place?

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