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Changes Sought in Olive Oil Labeling

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SUDHIN THANAWALA | September 19, 2007 04:44 AM EST | AP

MARTINEZ, Calif. — This fall, Tom Powers will harvest his olives and press them into oil _ Alhambra Valley authentic extra virgin olive oil with a distinctive peppery finish.

But Powers and other California growers worry shoppers will never know what sets their products apart because of what they allege to be widespread mislabeling in the olive oil industry. They are petitioning the federal government to adopt the same familiar terms used by European producers: olive oil, virgin olive oil and extra virgin olive oil.

"This is really high quality stuff," said Powers, whose two varieties of Tuscan olives grow amid the dry, rolling hills of Contra Costa County, northeast of San Francisco.

The push for new standards comes at a time when olive oil production and consumption in the United States is on the rise. U.S. sales have doubled in the last decade as Americans look for healthier food options, and olive oil now accounts for about a third of all cooking oils used at home.

Oil produced in Spain, Italy and other Mediterranean countries are classified under international standards the U.S. has not adopted. Instead, the U.S. Department of Agriculture uses a 1948 classification system that defines olive oil as fancy, choice, standard or substandard.

The terms carry no regulatory weight in this country, so unscrupulous producers here and abroad can get away with branding olive oil bound for U.S. grocery shelves as extra virgin _ the highest and most expensive grade _ even if it is of lesser quality.

The California Olive Oil Council, an industry group, petitioned the USDA in 2004 to replace its outmoded classification system and the agency expects to solicit public input by the end of this year, according to a spokesman. A final decision will come after that.

"When people go into a retail store and buy a gallon of extra virgin olive oil for $12, they should question whether that's really extra virgin," said grower Don Della Nina, who sells a 375-milliliter bottle of his own, California-grown Olio Bello d'Olivo brand olive oil for $14.

California growers also hope that by adopting the international standards they would eliminate cheap international competition, helping the state's producers increase their share of a U.S. market still dominated by European countries.

Officials with the Spanish, French, Italian and Greek olive oil industry organizations did not immediately return requests for comment via telephone and e-mail.

California is by far the leading U.S. producer. Olive oil production here rose from about 250,000 gallons in 2001-2002 to about 400,000 gallons in 2004-2005. And production is expected to roughly double over the next three years, said Paul Vossen, who studies olive oil at the University of California Cooperative Extension office in Sonoma County.

Among olive oils, extra virgin is king. To earn the classification under the international standards, the fruit must be picked before it becomes too ripe and pressed soon after without solvents, heat or intense pressure, according to Bruce Golino, a board member of the oil council. It must meet strict requirements for acidity.

Some instances of fraud involve lower-grade oils classified as extra virgin, but in the most egregious examples, cheaper vegetable oils are sold as extra virgin olive oil.

The council wants the USDA to test olive oil for adulteration and set up a taste panel, which may be the only way to distinguish refined olive oil from extra virgin. The USDA would not be able to punish producers found to be violating the standards, but the California Olive Oil Council said the threat of lawsuits from competitors would pressure companies to comply.

"Right now there is a feeling that a lot of the oil labeled extra virgin on retail store shelves is in fact a lower grade," said council president Alan Greene.