The United States has never before had enforceable or legally defined designations for olive oil. With terms such as extra virgin, light, with lemon, unfiltered, cold-pressed, the variety is endless, and understandably confusing.
Things are changing.
The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) recently adopted scientifically verifiable classifications such as “virgin” or “extra virgin”, extra virgin being considered the highest in quality because it has the best flavor. The definitions will differentiate cheaper oils from the best.
The USDA will start enforcing them in October, just in time for the harvest of trees.
According to The Huffington Post, “It will put an end to marketing terms that are confusing to the consumer, such as light, extra light–language that really doesn’t meant too much,” said Patricia Darragh, executive director of the California Olive Oil Council, a trade association of producers responsible for most US-grown olive oil.
Almost all U.S.-grown olive oil comes from California, and production expands about 20 percent per year.
To reassure buyers what they are purchasing is quality, the standards will also conform to international and trade group definitions.
“You have so much to choose from, it’s good to know there will be a way to weed out the masses,” said shopper Katheryn Kealey, 23, who stopped in the olive oil aisle of an upscale San Francisco supermarket to read the fine print on a jar.
Dean Griggs, whose Tres Osos olive oil won Best in Show in the COOC’s competition this year, welcomes the regulations.
“You put it under your nose, the first thing you notice is grass,” he said. “You pull it back over your tongue, there a little fruitiness, a little nuttiness with that grass. It finishes off, you get that pepper burn,” says Griggs when describing his oil.
In 2003 the California Olive Oil Council adopted its own mandatory quality test for its members. To get their seal of approval, an oil purporting to be “extra virgin” had to meet requirements including an acidity test and a taste test.
Not long after, the association petitioned the USDA to adopt a similar approach to protect boutique products from competition with refined oils of lesser quality, or oils altered with cheaper products.
“There has been a concern for some time about the quality and truthfulness of oil brought into the United States,” said Darragh. “In the absence of federal standards, some unscrupulous importers have flooded the market.”
Although olive oil is more expensive than nut or seed oils, it is far more costly and labor-intensive to produce.
The new regulations provide specific chemical parameters of purity and freshness that provide a basis for enforcement. They include indicators for fatty acid composition and the ultraviolet light absorption, which indicates the oil’s state of preservation.
Rayne Pegg, an administrator with the USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service, said the standards establish “a common language for trade while providing consumers more assurance about the quality of olive oil that they purchase.”
Local oil producer Griggs has had trouble breaking even, though he loves what he does. “This is my soul right here,” he says.
Griggs explained that the standards will ease the pressure on price and make it easier to have a presence in the market. “Now it’ll be a level playing field,” he said. “I’ll still put out the same product, but I won’t have to compete with garbage that’s out there.”