The imported olive oil that’s on most Californians shelves today is quite likely inferior to hundreds of fine California olive oil brands with distinctive flavors and great diversity of character. Despite the fact that cultivation of olives requires little water and reports of adulteration among popular European brands, ninety-seven percent of the olive oil consumed in the US still is imported from Europe.
An oft-cited UC Davis study from 2010 found that 69 percent of imported olive oils labeled as extra-virgin (EVOO) failed to meet international and USDA standards, compared with only 10 percent of California olive oils. So in this case the value of locality as a food paradigm is related to other important food paradigms of quality control, transparency, and ecological impact.
California has taken matters into its own hands to elevate the reputation of domestic olive oil. The California Department of Food and Agriculture announced new standards for the state’s olive oil producers, based on recommendations from the industry’s leaders.
Worldwide, the European International Olive Council (IOC) has defined quality standards for olive oil production, but regulation has been loose. The new California standards now require purity testing for producers that handle upwards of 5,000 gallons, as well as defining grades of olive oil, setting requirements for labeling, packaging, and traceability, and prohibiting misleading terms like “light” and “pure,” which usually designate products that include refined oils.The legislation also requires labeling for harvest dates and geographic origin to better communicate freshness and seasonality.
On the other hand, chemical parameters defined by the California standards are actually not as rigorous as the IOC’s, particularly with regard to fatty acids and sterols.The purported reason for this is that deviations from IOC standards are necessary in order to account for differences in soil, climate, and elevation, which produce a distinct fatty acid profile in California-grown olives. The Olive Oil Commission of California, the industry group that advised the CDFA in creating the standards, wanted the new standards to err on the side of inclusion for the state’s smaller growers.
Much education is still needed to shift the American mindset about the value of ocally grown and pressed olive oils. As consumers start knowing what fresh local olive oil tastes like and start to be more critical of labeling, the likelihood that they will lean more toward local producers and producers will grow.