Olive oil's troubled waters.
Byline: The Register-Guard
Olive oil is a strong candidate for being the most confusingly, even deceptively, labeled item on the supermarket shelf. There's "virgin," and then there's "extra virgin," suggesting a purity beyond the immaculate. The label on the front of a bottle will boast that the oil was imported from Italy, but the small type on the back will state that the olives themselves were grown in Turkey, Spain or Tunisia. Olive oil can be sold as "pure" or "light" without being either, and terms such as "unfiltered," "cold pressed" and "cold extracted" are undefined or have variable meanings.
California olive oil producers propose to reduce the confusion with new labeling and purity standards, while also ensuring the credibility of their own products' claims of high quality. American consumers, who represent a growing market for the global olive oil industry, should hope the Californians prevail against the established producers represented by the International Olive Council in Madrid and its allied importers.
Californians produce only 0.2 percent of the world's olive oil, but their volume is growing. At the request of growers and processors, lawmakers in Sacramento formed the Olive Oil Commission of California. The commission's labeling and purity proposals, now being considered by California's Department of Food and Agriculture, would apply only to the state's largest producers, but would set a standard that the entire industry would feel pressure to match.
Federal rules leave olive oil labeling largely unregulated - claims of "virgin" oil, which is supposed to be untreated by chemicals and obtained from the first pressing of the fruit, or "extra virgin" oil, milled within 24 hours of harvest, are subject to voluntary certification. Testing and consistent, meaningful labels on California olive oil would push the entire industry to improve the credibility of its claims, and consumers everywhere would benefit.