* Editor’s note: This story published originally in July 2012.
Yolo County is home to the only center in North America devoted to researching and supporting the many facets of the olive industry.
The Olive Center, established at UC Davis four years ago, has made strides in helping the olive industry improve. It also caused an international stir when a 2011 joint study with the Australian Oils Research Laboratory found 69 percent of olive oil on California supermarket shelves was rancid.
Although Americans are the third largest consumer of olive oil in the world behind Italy and Spain, 98 percent of this heart-healthy oil comes from abroad.
“When you’re dealing with an issue that’s having an economic impact in some of these countries, it’s understandable that some of these people have reacted strongly to it,” said Dan Flynn, executive director and founder of the UCD Olive Center.
Selina Wang, research director at the UCD Olive Center, said a separate study found that 70 percent of U.S. consumers prefer rancid oil because it is the flavor they are used to. Oil purchased at the supermarket may be up to two years old and may sit at home in consumers’ cabinets for an additional year.
“The consumers have to be educated, food buyers have to be educated and start … demanding higher quality products,” said Wang, who earned her Ph.D. in organic chemistry at UCD and oversees the laboratory where graduate and undergraduate students conduct experiments on various issues pertaining to table olives and olive oil research and education.
“If you give (consumers) really fresh olive oil, it should taste bitter and pungent,” Wang said. “The bitterness and the spiciness on the back of your throat should make you cough.”
According to Flynn, a former organic farmer and legislative consultant in Sacramento for more than 17 years, the goal of the olive center is to provide service to the olive industry to help it produce better quality olives and be more efficient.
“We really wanted to put it out there that we wanted to do for olives what UC Davis has done for wine,” Flynn said.
According to the Yolo County Agricultural Commissioner’s office, of the 30,000+ acres planted statewide, Yolo is home to 4,000 acres of olives and it expects to gain an additional 1,000 acres within the next year.
“He is very good at talking to people,” said Wang regarding Flynn’s ability to bridge experts with people in the industry who need help. “It doesn’t matter who they are — a farmer, a CEO of a huge importer — he talks to you the same way.”
The UCD Olive Center is an umbrella organization, which Flynn coordinated, encompassing more than 30 professors and research specialists from a variety of disciplines across the campus — food chemists, plant scientists, agricultural engineers, economists and farm advisers who had an interest in helping the olive industry.
Flynn recognized the growing olive industry was in need of support when he was recruited near the end of his career as a legislative consultant by Sal Genito, former UCD director of buildings and grounds, to write a feasibility report for harvesting and processing the olives growing on the trees around campus as an alternative to hauling the fruit off to landfills.
The olive trees paralleling Russell Boulevard’s heavily traveled bike path on the north end of campus would drop fruit for months, making the path slippery and hazardous for students biking to and from school and costly for the grounds keepers to maintain.
“Not knowing a whole lot about olives wasn’t a deterrent,” Flynn smirked, retelling how he talked to industry experts and studied up on olives until he felt 90 percent more knowledgeable than the next guy.
“I was interested in food and the research that I did was kind of similar to the research I did when I worked for the legislators, because I was accustomed to working in many different areas.”
Flynn said the university wanted to be better connected to the food and beverage industry with the formation of the Mondavi Center on campus, so he suggested starting the olive center.
“It was something I was used to doing with legislators — throwing out ideas and it got some initial positive response,” he said.
According to Flynn, olive trees have certain attributes that make them ideal for California’s economy and Mediterranean climate — low water use, low pesticide use and an ability to go grow in poor soils. The production of olives in California is growing rapidly, generating 1.2 million gallons of olive oil last year and an anticipated increase to 5 million or more gallons in the next three years.
“It is growing fast,” Flynn said.
However, Flynn explains that the price of olive oil imported to the U.S. from abroad is at a historic low compared to oil produced domestically because — unlike Californian olives — it is subsidized, controlled by a handful of companies and made from lower quality oils and sold as extra virgin.
“Those are challenges that the growers here need to overcome,” Flynn said. “The politics get woven into this with standards and quality.
“The International Olive Council and the European Union are assessing their standards with the thought that they need to be a little stricter because so much bad olive oil we analyzed was able to pass the chemistry standard but the oil tasted rancid,” he said. “That shows that the standards are way too loose.”
Flynn says olive oil is one of the few food items that has a sensory panel to help determine if it contains defects and establish a pure or extra virgin grade.
The center’s sensory panel “is actually a tool that a producer could use here to analyze the quality of their oil and see if it makes the grade,” Flynn said. “It could be a retailer or super market chain deciding whether or not they are pleased that the oil meets their specifications.”
When Flynn and Wang began the 1 1/2-year study of olive oils across California’s supermarkets, they used a list of top-selling brands and collected oil from grocery stores from the Sacramento region to San Francisco and Los Angeles.
“What I realized was how confusing it was for the consumer,” said Wang, who is overseeing multiple research projects simultaneously at the olive center. “I literally saw people stand in front of the shelves staring at all the olive oils, and then they would just end up randomly picking one up.”
According to Wang, consumers should avoid purchasing olive oil packaged in clear bottles because even if the oil was good when it was produced, the oil deteriorates quickly when it is exposed to light. Plastic bottles were found to be the worst packaging as oxygen and light can penetrate it — allowing the oil to go rancid quickly.
“It is not easy to predict the shelf life of the oil,” Wang said about the olive center’s most recent research project to determine the best-by date of oil. “It depends on the antioxidants, fighting off oxidation. The more antioxidants the oil has, the longer shelf life it will have.”
Wang is also working on a project to determine if the refrigeration of olive oils affects its chemistry.
Flynn said that the overall response from the university and the industry has been very supportive.
“I think it’s a pretty good model of what you can do with a limited budget and thinking creatively to allow the university to help the industry and fulfill its mission,” Flynn said.
The UCD Olive Center has grown to sell a variety of products to the public including olive oil, table olives and skin care products, as well as host educational seminars.
“It’s pretty phenomenal what you can do when you put a scientist and a politician together,” said Wang, with a laugh. “Although, I don’t think (Flynn) thinks of himself as a politician.”