The Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS) of the U.S. Department of Agriculture is finally revising its standards for olive oil, promulgated way back in 1948, to bring them in line with the International Olive Council (IOC), an organization established under United Nations auspices that represents 98% of the world’s olive oil production, nearly all in the Mediterranean basin (the U.S. is not a member). It is doing so at the behest of the California Olive Oil Council (COOC), which is the trade association of U.S. olive oil producers, essentially all of whom are in California.
The new regulations, which are effective on October 25, can be found here, and here is a release the AMS put out describing them. Pretty clearly, terms like "U.S. Fancy" are quaint and obsolete with respect to how olive oil is marketed, and standards for what the terms "Extra Virgin" and "Virgin" olive oil mean are important for olive oil producers, distributors, retailers and consumers.
COOC was also a funder of a study, which has received much press attention, about the accuracy of olive oils labeled as “extra virgin” in advance of the effectiveness of the new AMS regulations. The study has resulted in headlines like, “Olive Oil Study Questions ‘Extra Virgin’ Claims” and the even more provocative, “Olive Oil Study Questions Claims of Virginity.”
The study showed, among olive oils purchased by the researchers in three parts of California (the Bay Area, Sacramento and Los Angeles County) a difference in the accuracy of “extra virgin” labeling between domestic and imported olive oils. Using tests that are used by IOC and in the AMS regulations, as well as other tests used by the German Fat and Oil Society and Australian Olive Association (neither Germany nor Australia being IOC members), there was a distinct difference in the quality of the oils tested, with the domestic olive oil coming off better.
The study makes no claim to any statistical significance for its findings, which is not surprising considering they only examined 14 imported and five domestic brands, buying one of each imported brand in three different places in California and one of each domestic brand in two. Equally unsurprisingly, the North American Olive Oil Association (NAOOA), which represents olive oil importers, has questioned the study’s conclusions, which they say are not in line with the results of their own periodic tests of their members’ products. Both groups appear to be supportive, however, of the AMS regulatory action.
One thing in the NAOOA press release about the new regulations struck me, however.
But the practice of labeling lower-quality olive oil as top-end — and charging a premium for it — is technically legal in the U.S.
The reason is simple: There are no federal rules that define what is — or is not — "virgin" or "extra virgin" olive oil, said Vito S. Polito, professor of plant sciences at UC Davis and co-chairman of the school’s Olive Center, a research group.
I suppose we can all have our own definition of "technically legal." Something could be thought of as technically legal if doing it does not result in criminal sanctions, or result in the product being forcibly recalled from store shelves. In those senses, I suppose selling something as "extra virgin" olive oil would be, until the AMS regulations come into effect in October, "technically legal." But if one took it to mean there are no adverse legal consequences, may I beg to differ? Readers of this blog will remember the implied warranty of merchantability contained in Section 2-314 of the Uniform Commercial Code. One key provision of that warranty is that the goods "conform to the promise or affirmations of fact made on the container or label if any." It doesn’t require federal standards to say what extra virgin olive oil is; any form of evidence of a standard, such as, say, the IOC standards, would presumably be admissible into evidence to show what the common understanding of the term is. If the goods sold do not conform to the standard found by the court or jury, then damages under Article 2 will be available.
For consumers, it should be even easier. If you buy something labeled extra virgin olive oil and the bottle, when opened, smells rancid, take it back to your retailer. If it smells delicious, enjoy one of nature’s true wonders.