How virginal is the olive oil in the pantry?

Extra virgin? That’s the best, of course. Virgin? Hopefully it’s not “virgin but unfit for human consumption.” Is it refined but not virgin? Or is it just plain old olive oil?

The International Olive Council, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the California Olive Oil Council, the University of California at Davis Olive Center and Sen. Lois Wolk, a Davis Democrat, want to ensure that olive oil users are getting what they pay for.

Because, right now, three out of four times, olive oil buyers aren’t, according to two recent UC Davis studies.

“Our findings indicate that the quality level of the largest imported brand names is inconsistent at best and that most of the top-selling olive oil brands we examined regularly failed to meet international standards for extra virgin olive oil,” concludes the second study, published in April.

UC Davis and Australian researchers found that of the five best-selling, imported “extra virgin” olive oils – Star, Pompeian, Bertolli, Colavita, Filippo Berio – 73 percent of them weren’t.

At least they didn’t meet International Olive Council standards for “extra virgin.” Results of a July 2010 study found 69 percent of 14 brands were not complying with international standards in both taste and chemical tests.

There were also diacylglycerol and pyropheophytins issues but the point is what the labels say isn’t what’s in the bottle.

The UC Davis studies note that both groups of tasters involved – the term-of-art is “sensory panels” – found all California olive oils labeled “extra virgin” to actually be “extra virgin.”

As UC Davis puts it, the taste defects of the imported olive oils are “indicators that these samples are oxidized, or poor quality and/or adulterated with cheaper refined oils.”

In a state facing an estimated $26.6 billion chasm between revenue and spending commitments, what exactly constitutes “extra virgin” olive oil seems located on a significantly lower tier of concern.

But, like so many things, significance is in the eye of the beholder.

To California’s olive oil makers, what “extra virgin” means is a very big deal.

And getting bigger all the time.

“It’s hard to make decent money if California oil is competing with oil priced low that doesn’t meet extra virgin standards,” said Dan Flynn, the executive director of the UC Davis Olive Center, the only entity of its kind in the United States.

“Quality is the issue. If it all says ‘extra virgin’ on the label but its low or lower quality and being sold as top grade, it’s hard for California growers who do produce top grade to compete with that.”

Each year, more California growers enter the marketplace.

In 2004, 6,000 acres in California were devoted to creating olive oil. Seven years later, 30,000 acres.

Most of those acres are located in the Central Valley. One-third of the acreage is in Glenn, Tehama and Butte counties. More than 60 percent of the remainder is located in Fresno, Kern, Madera and Tulare.

Part of the attraction is a relatively good return on investment, lower water requirements and the ability to have olive trees thrive in less than ideal soil.

Given its Mediterranean-like climate, California represents 99.5 percent of domestic olive oil production. Worldwide, California ranks about 20th.

Thirty years ago, Americans consumed 8 million gallons of the stuff annually. Today, 80 million gallons. An increase, Flynn says, of recent vintage.

That’s why, in part, Wolk views her role in carrying her bill, SB 818, as educator and cheerleader.

“What’s happening is an emerging, healthy and competitive olive oil industry in California,” Wolk said in an interview with Capitol Weekly.

“One of the fastest growing production crops is olives. They’re being planted the way they were planting vineyards 10 years ago. We spend a lot of money for imported extra virgin olive oil that, in many cases isn’t, when we produce actual extra virgin olive oil ourselves.”

And, Wolk says, besides the quality of olive oil being a “pressing issue,” championing the homegrown variety creates “truly green jobs.”

Wolk’s bill changes the definition of various calibers of olive oil to conform with standards adopted by the USDA in October – the first federal olive oil updating of the Agricultural Marketing Act since 1948.

For the most part, federal standards mirror those of the International Olive Council. Input from the California Olive Oil Council added some differences that take into account California’s unique soils and topography.

About 80 percent of production of all types of olive oil is in European Union countries like Italy, Greece, Spain, Portugal and France. Tunisia, Syria, Morocco and Turkey – a European Union wannabe – also are major producers.

The International Olive Council’s standards govern the EU growers.

But just as in the United States, there’s no enforcement, which allows adulteration of the oil and, as UC Davis found, misleading or false labeling.

Following the USDA’s lead, Wolk’s legislation defines extra virgin olive oil as having an “excellent” flavor and “odor expressed as a median of defects equal to zero and a median of fruitiness greater than zero.”

The lower the “median of defects,” the better.

Virgin olive oil has a “reasonably good” flavor. Neither “excellent” nor “reasonably good” is defined in the bill.

Not surprisingly, “virgin olive oil not fit for human consumption without further processing” has a “poor” flavor and a far higher “median of defects.”

Wolk’s bill spells out both “median of defects” and “median of fruitiness.”

The former is the median score from a panel of tasters examining the negative aspects of the olive oil including – but not limited to — “musty, fusty, winey-vinegary, muddy-sentiment and rancid.”

No definition is offered in the bill for musty and fusty. Webster’s says musty is “impaired by damp or mildew, moldy.” Fusty is a musty synonym.

Flynn and others worry that since Californians for the most part aren’t finding high quality imported olive oil on supermarket shelves they may not know what the real deal actually tastes like.  

A February UC Davis survey of Northern California olive oil buyers found that 44 percent were attracted to olive oils by their rancidness and fustiness.

“This preference for defective olive oil may be related to the prevalence of defective olive oil available to consumers,” the study notes.

For consumers, Flynn recommends buying olive oil that has a harvest date and using it within one year.

Don’t buy in clear bottles – sunlight contributes to oxidation, he says. And, like the old saw says, store in a cool, dry place.

Wolk practices what she preaches. Her kitchen contains Corto from her Yolo County centered district as well as Yolo Press and Copper Hill.

“The good stuff tastes different. More flavorful. Full-bodied. A light tartness. No metallic taste. We need to educate our palates.”

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