June 21, 2008

Growers: Olive Oil Labeling the Pits

California law is stringent when it comes to the amount of fat in your milk, the octane rating of your gasoline, even the percentage of Napa County-grown grapes in Napa-labeled wines.

But it's strangely mute when it comes to olive oil. There is no state or federal standard to distinguish extra virgin olive oil from virgin oil or just plain olive oil. While many oils meet European grade and production standards, there's nothing that requires U.S. producers or distributors to follow those rules.

Now California's nascent olive oil industry and some state legislators are behind a bill that would require oil produced, distributed or sold in the state to meet international standards.

"There are plenty of people who are selling adulterated and less-than-quality oil under the auspices of extra virgin," said Brady Whitlow, president of Corto Olive northeast of Stockton. "We need any kind of legislation to help us keep the cheaters at bay."

That help, in the form of Senate Bill 634, passed its first hurdle this week, winning approval from the Assembly Agriculture Committee. It still must pass the full Assembly, return to the state Senate for confirmation of amendments and win the governor's signature to become law.

Bill author state Sen. Patricia Wiggins, D-Santa Rosa, said it would protect consumers, aid exports of California olive oil and could spur the adoption of such standards on a national basis.

"SB634 would establish new definitions that meet international standards and require that bottles of olive oil be labeled accordingly," she said in a statement. "This will help consumers make informed choices based on consistent standards for quality."

It also would help nurture the state's small but rapidly growing olive oil industry, said Alan Greene, president of the California Olive Oil Council.

The state produces roughly 500,000 gallons of olive oil a year, a fraction of the 75 million to 80 million gallons consumed in the United States annually. But a boom of new olive plantings and oil plant projects could raise the state's output to 20 million gallons by 2020, Greene said.

Producers such as Corto Olive and California Olive Ranch, where Greene is vice president of business development, could be at a disadvantage if they have to compete with sellers offering mislabeled, lower-quality oils, he said.

"We're all putting big money into this industry, and we don't want substandard product both taking away an economic opportunity and disenfranchising consumers," Greene said.

The bill would bring state standards in line with those adopted by the International Olive Council, based in Madrid, Spain, in the production and labeling of olive oil

Those standards require, among other things, that extra virgin olive oil be produced solely by mechanical means, without the heat or solvents commonly used to make oils, such as corn and canola.

It also covers a variety of different grades of oil and for the first time would set standards for flavored olive oils.