Sen. Lois Wolk seized on the latest UC Davis study finding nearly three-quarters of top-selling brands fail to meet the international standards for “extra virgin” olive oil.
“It is time that we tighten our standards to prevent mislabeled olive oil from being sold to unsuspecting consumers,” said Wolk, D-Davis, the chair of a Senate subcommittee on olive oil, in a news release.
Her Senate Bill 818 would bring California into compliance with U.S. Department of Agriculture standards that went into effect last October.
The latest UCD study, produced in conjunction with Australian researchers and released this week, examined 134 samples of eight brands purchased in major supermarkets throughout the state.
“While there are many excellent imported and domestic olive oils available, our tests indicate that there are serious quality problems out there,” said Dan Flynn, executive director of the UCD Olive Center, which performed sensory and chemical tests on the samples along with the Australian Oils Research Laboratory.
Researchers found 66 of 90 samples of the five top-selling brands failed international sensory standards, according to the report. Of the samples that failed both sensory panels, 35 percent also failed a standard for ultraviolet absorption.
The brands were: Colavita, Star, Bertolli, Filippo Berio and Pompeian.
“Extra virgin” is the top grade of olive oil. It must have no sensory defects, such as rancidity or “fustiness,” a fermentation defect, and must offer some fruity flavor. USDA and International Olive Council standards also include specific chemistry-based criteria, according to a UCD news release.
The results were consistent with an earlier study released by the researchers last year, Flynn said. The new study examined more samples, used two sensory panels instead of one, and concentrated on a smaller number of brands, he said.
The same five brands of imported oils failed sensory tests at the same 73 percent rate, or 11 of 15 samples, in last year’s study.
Some brands did do well, however.
None of the California and Australia olive oil samples, from California Olive Ranch and Cobram Estates, respectively, failed both sensory panels. Just 11 percent of a premium Italian brand, Lucini, failed both sensory panels.
“This study further confirms that California’s olive oil industry can compete and thrive in a fair marketplace,” Wolk said. “A level playing field will protect consumers while rewarding producers who meet or exceed high standards.”
The IOC, however, said in a statement that the second study addressed some of its concerns about the earlier effort. The Madrid-based organization wondered aloud about the intent of the research.
“Both reports have the same evident undercurrent of aggressive, inexplicable criticism of imported olive oil quality,” wrote executive director Jean-Louis Batrol. “This could cause irreparable damage to the reputation of olive oil, which has taken so much time and effort to achieve and maintain, and consequently of all of us who work with this product.”
Flynn said it was important for California standards to reflect the USDA’s, as Wolk is calling for, because they take into account the role geography, climate and olive varieties play in causing California oil to contain levels of some elements like campestoral, a plant fat, that exceed international standards.
Funding for the UCD study was provided by Corto Olive, California Olive Ranch and the California Olive Oil Council.
The role of California producers raised eyebrows about the first study. Flynn dismissed any criticism on Thursday.
“The study was conducted based on the standards set by the International Olive Council. All of the sensory panels were done blind, every one was done in very professional and scientific manner, and we published the results as we got them,” he said.
The first UCD study resulted in a class-action complaint on behalf of chefs and restaurants in Orange County Superior Court. That complaint has since been dropped, according to the Los Angeles Times.