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Improving Olive Oil Standards

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There have been culinary horror stories about ships plying the Mediterranean, stopping at ports in Spain, Italy and Turkey, and filling their vast holds with olive and other oils that are then indiscriminately mixed, yet sold as pure in U.S. food stores. Unscrupulous producers bottle inferior grades of oil and slap on a premium label. Sometimes the product is cut with inferior oils like sunflower or hazelnut, though it’s still marketed as “100% pure olive.”

naoocolor.gifAmerican consumers love olive oil, but they’re in dire need of some education — and some reassurance that the oil they’re purchasing is authentic. The U.S. Department of Agriculture has proposed new standards, but has yet to finalize grading and issue new regulations. As a result, we keep using the four grades of olive oil established by the agency in 1948.

The rules are based on four basic elements: acidity, absence of defects, odor and flavor. There’s nothing about purity or authenticity, and this is the loophole that’s been blatantly exploited by less reputable producers. When consumers see terms like “pure extra virgin” on a label, that actually means nothing in the eyes of the USDA, because that’s a definition used by the International Olive Council, located in Spain. The United States isn’t a member of the IOC, and so, such wording is not officially recognized stateside.

Those who make or sell olive oil here in the United States are taking matters into their own hands. In California, a 2009 law requires that any olive oil made or sold in the state conform with IOC standards. The bill was pushed by the California Olive Oil Council, which also awards its own seal based on a battery of tests, and even a tasting panel.

Now, the North American Olive Oil Association, representing marketers, packagers and importers, is adding its own certified quality seal program. It too, is based on standards that meet or exceed IOC benchmarks. The organization has also started asking states to adopt the international standard, like California, New York and Oregon have.

Low in saturated fats, high in the good monounsaturated fats that lower cholesterol, olive oil has become a fundamental ingredient in everyone's pantry. As such, some kind of national standard is long overdue.

(Photo credit: NOOA)

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