Natural Foods Merchandiser

California Olive Oil Producers Press for Definition of 'Extra Virgin'

Do you know what's in the extra-virgin olive oil in your store? Because olive oil labeling standards in the United States have not been updated since 1948, there's no guarantee that oil labeled "extra virgin" really is. The California Olive Oil Council announced this summer that it filed a petition with the U.S. Department of Agriculture asking for updated standards.

Current standards do not define "virgin" or "extra virgin," the common terms used internationally to denote high grades of olive oil. Instead, the current language labels oils as either "fancy," "choice," "standard," or "substandard."

The COOC has proposed new standards reflecting those of the International Olive Oil Council. The new standards would include 10 grades of olive oil, including "virgin" and "extra virgin," and would be granted according to a chemical analysis for acidity and a taste test by a panel certified by the COOC.

Because companies currently selling oil in the United States can use the "extra virgin" label at will, COOC officials say new standards would help even the playing field for California producers, who make up only 1 percent of the world's olive oil market. The proposed changes would force international competitors to boost their oils' quality, perhaps raising their prices, too.

Christine Vestfals, sales and marketing coordinator for B.R. Cohn, a California olive oil producer, said oils shipped from other countries often are not certified, and sometimes the olives don't even come from the country producing the oil.

Aside from all economic factors, the proposed changes would give consumers more confidence that when they purchase olive oil labeled "extra virgin," it has gone through a chemical analysis and taste test to prove it deserves the "extra virgin" label.

"It's a consumer-confidence thing. What it says on the label is what is in the bottle. That's important for the consumer," said Vestfals.

Though it could take more than a year for any changes to be made to the rules, the USDA will soon hold a comment period on the proposed changes.

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