BP isn't the only disreputable oil company in the United States. Apparently there are no rules regulating olive oil here. Which means that purveyors can sell consumers any kind of adulterated garbage and call it “extra virgin”–and they do. The U.S. Department of Agriculture is finally stepping in with new olive oil regulations that will take effect this fall. However, the new standards are voluntary, not mandatory.
The L.A. Times reported yesterday that expensive, high-end “extra virgin” olive oils are often watered down with cheap canola, safflower or peanut oils. Olive oil, with its purported health benefits, is huge among Americans, who consumed 79 million gallons of the green-gold stuff in 2008, spending about $720 million annually. Most of it is imported from Spain, Italy, Greece and Portugal.
The USDA's new product standards are based on those of the International Olive Council in Madrid, which state that extra-virgin olive oil is cold-pressed, has a higher level of healthy fats and antioxidants, and has a relatively low acidity level. Current federal law bans companies from not disclosing on labels that their olive oil is a blend of oils. However, until now there have been no rules in place to keep companies from branding low-quality olive oil as extra-virgin, since there are no federal standards defining what extra-virgin means.
Because of this, “the U.S. has been a dumping ground for cheap olive oil for years,” said Vito S. Polito, professor of plant sciences at UC Davis and co-chairman of the campus' Olive Center.
Sadly, companies will only have to follow the new rules if they want a federal seal of approval on their product, or if the retailers that buy their oil require it. For olive oil aficionados, it is, as they say, the pits.