January 2012 is likely to be remembered as a watershed month in the US olive oil industry. It seems that at long last, we can glimpse a light at the end of the tunnel.
The catalyst for much of what happened was unquestionably Tom Mueller and his book Extra Virginity: The Sublime and Scandalous World of Olive Oil. Although his book tour started in December of last year, Tom’s presence in California in January 2012 led to a number of events being scheduled. But Extra Virginity was just what brought the spotlight to bear on the scene, it was not the entire picture. A number of separate threads relating to olive oil quality came together last month, projects and initiatives from many quarters, some many years in the making.
Much has been said and written about the Australian Olive Oil Standard and its importance in the fight for meaningful olive oil quality standards. This attention is well deserved; there is no doubt that this is the foundation upon which the US standard will be built. The president of the Australian Olive Association, Paul Miller, was also in the US during January, and was an important participant in these critical events.
On January 19th a meeting was held at the Dixon Fairgrounds to discuss a federal marketing order for olive oil which would collect a per-gallon assessment from growers. At this meeting, many people got their first look at the draft proposal spearheaded by California Olive Ranch. The intent of the marketing order is to put in place an olive oil standard—based on the Australian standard—that will impose a meaningful and enforceable quality standard on US-made olive oil. The domestic standard paves the way for uniform quality standards on all olive oil traded in the United States.
The hope is, of course, that this would be the game changer, the level playing field that ALL honest olive oil producers are seeking. A steering committee has been formed, and the hard work of figuring out the details has begun, with the objective of having a proposal by June 1st.
On January 26th, the Senate Subcommittee on California’s Olive oil Industry and Emerging Products held a hearing on the topic of “Challenges facing California’s Olive Oil Industry.” We heard testimony on both the enormous potential and the thorny problems facing our industry. The Senate subcommittee hearing showed very clearly that we have the attention and the interest of the folks in Sacramento. Senator Wolk and her subcommittee are obviously committed to supporting the California olive oil industry in its fight for fairness and success in the marketplace.
There were also many educational and PR functions in January, again prompted primarily by Tom Mueller’s presence on his book tour. The Olive Center/Culinary Institute of America seminar on olive oil quality was a particularly significant event, seeking as it did to educate the people who make the decisions that influence the decisions of others.
Williams Sonoma held a book signing and olive oil tasting class at their flagship store in San Francisco that was unique for the connection it made between the producers of honest excellent olive oil and the consumer. As each one of the great oils was tasted, we were able to introduce the producer. That producer—from France, California, Spain, Italy—stood up, and was applauded for his or her extraordinary achievement. We also tasted a slightly fusty, rancid supermarket oil for contrast. It is significant that no producer could take credit for that olive oil; it contained “olive oils from Spain, Italy, Greece, Tunisia and/or Turkey.” And who knows how many harvest years were represented in that bottle.
The road ahead seems to me more clearly marked than it has ever been. The federal marketing order is an essential tool in cleaning up the mess that is the current olive oil regulatory environment. The fact that the process could take years makes it all the more urgent that we draft and submit a proposal soon. There is a lot of work to do figuring out the details, but there seems to be tremendous agreement in the domestic olive oil industry that we need to do something about mislabeled (okay, bogus) extra virgin olive oil, and we need to do it now.
The high level of interest expressed by the Senate Subcommittee indicates that we have an issue that is extremely compelling once people learn about it. Another great development is the involvement of olive oil producers from Georgia and Texas in the marketing order discussion; we are now looking at the emergence of a US olive oil industry. The continuing drama playing out in Australia is also important as both an inspirational and a cautionary tale. They have worked hard and done the right thing, but their domestic olive oil industry is under siege by the cheap imports and their henchmen. The US needs to move swiftly, decisively and in a unified way.
The high level of interest in olive oil education is also important, critically important. Although we know that good standards enforced with off-the-shelf testing are crucial, we cannot forget that ultimately our fate as an industry will lie with the decision of the consumer to buy our product. Imagine a world where poor quality olive oil is still on the shelf, but accurately labeled as a lower grade and sold at a lower price. If the consumer doesn’t understand and embrace the value of real extra virgin olive oil—with the higher price tag that comes with it—they might still reach for the cheaper option. That is our long-term challenge.