Olives are on the pressing block. Earlier this week, the U.S. International Trade Commission held a public hearing to launch an investigation into the olive oil industry that was largely fueled by a UC Davis study two years ago. The study reported many of the imported olive oils on our supermarket shelves are not the extra virgins they claim to be. (Shocker.)

As reported in The Seattle Times, domestic producers in attendance were rallying for tighter regulation in the industry. “We just want a level playing field so we can compete,” said Fresno olive oil producer Pat Ricchiuti, president of Enzo Olive Oil Co.

Up for review is whether some importers are making false claims, bottling lesser quality and blended oils as extra-virgin, thus giving them a significant competitive advantage over more expensive domestic oils. (Domestic extra virgin oils fared well in the UC Davis quality study.) Imported olive oils make up the vast majority of the U.S. market.

As Curtis Cord, executive editor of The Olive Oil Times, reports from Wednesday's hearing, UC Davis Chemist Slina and Australian scientist Rodney Mailer from Charles Sturt University discussed new alternatives to olive oil quality testing. “The existing restrictive standards discriminate against good quality olive oil but do nothing to prevent unacceptable products being sold in our supermarkets,” said Mailer.

The six-member trade commission heard from olive oil producers throughout the U.S., including the largest domestic olive oil producer, California Olive Ranch (California is the largest producer of olive oil in the U.S.). Representatives from the Madrid-based International Olive Oil Council (IOC) did not attend the hearing, a puzzling absence even to the commissioners, reports Cord. He continues: “Testifying on behalf of major importers were the chairman of the North American Olive Oil Association (NAOOA) John Sessler, and Executive Vice President Eryn Balch, who called for enforcement of existing international standards for olive oil grades. Balch blamed “subjective sensory testing” for the highly publicized results of a 2010 University of California, Davis study [results] …”

As the yearlong investigation continues, some domestic importers are already taking the initiative to regulate to their quality control operations voluntarily. Earlier this year, Maryland-based importer Pompeian, enrolled in the USDA's Quality Monitoring Program, a voluntary fee-based government program that monitors the quality of the fruit and vegetable ingredients used by companies (olive oil was recently added to the list of produce covered under the Quality Monitoring Program). The regulation process involves operations audits, regulation of a company's quality control procedures, and blind product sampling/analysis.

For more information on olive oil regulations, visit The Olive Oil Times.

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