06/07/2013 09:50 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Why Can't We Regulate Restaurant Olive Oil?


By Nancy Harmon Jenkins

The European Commission has shown customary timidity in abruptly withdrawing a proposal made last week to exert minimal control over the quality of olive oil served in restaurants. The idea behind the proposal was admirable -- that olive oil be served in original, tamper-proof bottles that state the oil's credentials on the label, rather than poured from an anonymous jug into cruets or bowls on the table. In that way, consumers would be certain of what they're being served and there would be no easy way of substituting bad oil for good. Restaurants, in the commission's words, should be "obliged to use oil bottles equipped with an opening system which cannot be resealed after the first time it is opened, together with a protection system preventing them from being reused once the contents indicated on the label have been finished."

This was not a sudden decision. It had been discussed for at least a year. And to those of us who have encountered, over and over again, rancid, fusty, smelly, old oil in those colorful little bowls or cruets on restaurant tables -- even in some very fine establishments -- it made good sense. But the proposal evoked an outcry from journalists, chefs, restaurateurs and the public at large such that you might think the EC had proposed reinstating capital punishment.

Related: Olive oil scam? Maybe not.

Consumer protection? No way! This was out-and-out interference in commerce, the naysayers cried, especially commerce that involved "little guys" -- small-scale restaurateurs and café owners and small-farm producers of olive oil. This was Brussels interfering with time-honored traditions, forcing out modest concerns in favor of big industrial-sized multinationals that promote commodity olive oil. The virtue of this argument is difficult to understand because large producers would have very little to gain from the proposal. But in the end, the EC, bowing to pressure on all sides, withdrew the regulation.

Much of the uproar came from sources with nothing on the table. I cannot speak for the German press, but British journalists suddenly had, as they themselves might say, their knickers in a twist over the proposal. Silly Europeans, the Brits snickered, there they go again, fussing over trivia, imposing ridiculous rules on innocent restaurateurs, as if they didn't have anything else to worry about in Brussels. Why don't they do something about the economy instead?

Related: Does cooking kill extra virgin olive oil?

Elsewhere, however, the outcry was even more difficult to understand and I got the impression that most people simply had not read the proposal. It is not a hardship for restaurateurs to provide tamper-proof bottles of olive oil since that is the way most small quantities of olive oil are sold. I buy oil in half-liter bottles or tins in local shops where I live in Tuscany. These containers almost uniformly have a plastic pour spout inside that is difficult to remove, and through which it would be difficult to refill the bottle. Furthermore, bottles such as these are the product of many different olive oil purveyors, from small, local farmers to substantial wineries that also produce oil for large, supra-national concerns. Disposing of the bottles once the contents are gone is also an easy task -- they simply go into the glass-product recycling bins that are universal in most of Europe.

Check out the following excerpt from Public Radio International's "The World," a daily NPR news program:

At a little café in a Spanish village. . . the owner, a guy named Aris, says he's indignant [about the new regulations]. Aris drives to his favorite olive orchard . . . to buy his oil right out of the presses. He tops up his big five-gallon jugs, and each morning at the café he fills his oil flasks by hand, then sets one on each table. . . . He says he doesn't understand how Europe can have a problem with this.

The problem, simply stated, is that all over Europe, thousands of restaurateurs, large and small, top off oil flasks or cruets or bowls with what is most likely not extra virgin at all but a much lesser grade of olive oil -- if, in fact, it is even olive oil and not some cheap substitute. And if it is extra virgin, it will most likely be rancid, fusty and several years out of date -- just a few of the most common faults in extra virgin olive oil that not only give bad flavors and aromas to the food served, but also ultimately are bad for diners' health. And even if it happens to be good olive oil when it goes into the flasks that are filled, day after day over the years without being cleaned, it's inevitable that the "fresh" oil added will be thoroughly contaminated by the nastiness at the bottom of the flask.

I would hazard a conservative guess, based on long years of experience, that at least 70 percent of the oil on tables in European restaurants, and at least 85 percent of the oil on tables in American restaurants, would not pass muster if the research team at UC Davis' Olive Center were to take up the challenge and test them for their extra virginity. When they tested imported extra virgin oils available in California retail shops a couple of years ago, of the top five best-selling imported "extra virgin" olive oil brands in the United States, 73 percent failed to meet sensory standards.

Related: What's the issue with setting olive oil standards?

Which is why, when I go to an ordinary restaurant, and even sometimes to extraordinary ones, even in the olive oil-producing regions of Spain, Greece, Italy and California, I carry with me a small, discreet tin of high-quality extra virgin to adorn my dishes when necessary in order to avoid what's in those cute glass, or rustic terracotta, or other type of cruets that sit on every restaurant table. (Of course, that doesn't save me from the fact that they've been cooking my food with that junk, does it?)

Essentially, the problem the EC was trying to address was consumer fraud, a serious concern with olive oil, in Europe as everywhere else in the world -- as many of these same journalists have been whining about for years. The new requirement would have prevented unscrupulous restaurateurs from filling their cruets with questionable oil. It was a tiny step forward in government efforts to combat fraud and to prevent what is all too often nasty, out-of-date, fake, unacceptable oil from being served up as if it were something genuine and special.

One simply cannot have it both ways. We cannot moan over fraudulent olive oil masquerading as fine extra virgin, and then gripe and sneer when the government takes a first, tentative step toward rectifying the situation. If we truly want reform, if we truly want to be sure that the oil in that bottle or on that table is what it says it is, then we must expect a lot more similar, and quite possibly even more stringent regulation in the years ahead. And welcome to it!

Top photo: Fresh pressed extra virgin olive oil in Italy. Credit: Nancy Harmon Jenkins

Zester Daily contributor Nancy Harmon Jenkins is the author of several books, including "Cucina del Sole: A Celebration of the Cuisines of Southern Italy," "The Essential Mediterranean," and "The New Mediterranean Diet Cookbook."

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