Log In / Join Now

When Is Extra Virgin Not Extra Virgin?

A California study raises questions about olive oil quality and highlights lax federal rules

Lynn Alley
Posted: July 28, 2010

In the past decade, American olive oil consumption has doubled, thanks largely to the touted benefits of the Mediterranean diet and olive oil's status as a healthy fat. The U.S. is now the world's third-largest market for olive oil and in 2009, American consumers bought more than 75 million gallons, according to the International Olive Council (IOC), an intergovernmental organization based in Madrid that sets European standards for olive oil.

Extra virgin is the crème de la crème of olive oil, with consumers often paying twice as much for extra virgin as for virgin oil. Yet a recent study by the University of California at Davis Olive Oil Center, in collaboration with the Australian Oils Research Laboratory, questions whether the oil on store shelves is really extra virgin. It also raises serious concerns about international testing methods and U.S. government regulations for olive oil.

According to European Union law, extra-virgin olive oil means the oil has been made by physical means, either a press or a centrifuge—no chemical solvents—and meet 32 chemical requirements, including having free acidity of no more than 0.8 percent. (Free acidity can indicate oil decomposition.) Virgin oil must have free acidity of no more than 2 percent.

Dan Flynn, director of the U.C. Davis Olive Center, says the study was prompted by anecdotal reports of poor-quality olive oil being sold as extra virgin. "Now we have empirical proof that such is the case," says Flynn.

The researchers bought multiple samples of 19 different brands of extra-virgin olive oil, 14 imported brands and five from California, purchased at retail outlets in the Sacramento, San Francisco and Los Angeles areas. A panel of trained tasters evaluated the oils and then researchers conducted a series of lab tests both at the center and in Australia. "Eleven tests were done on each oil sample for a total of 572 tests," says Flynn.

The researchers found that 69 percent of the imported oils labeled extra-virgin failed to meet established international standards, while 10 percent of the California-produced brands failed. About 99 percent of olive oil consumed in the U.S. is imported. The tests indicated that the oils might have been oxidized, made from damaged and overripe olives, improperly stored or even adulterated with cheaper refined olive oil. The authors also suggest that IOC methods for evaluating oils may be inadequate, arguing that new German and Australian standards produced better results.

One important caveat: Two California producers, Corto Olive and California Olive Ranch, as well as the California Olive Oil Council, helped finance the UC Davis research.

The IOC noted in a statement that Davis "reports results for only 52 samples of 19 brands, which is not statistically significant." In a position paper written in response to the Davis study, the IOC also pointed out that the German and Australian testing methods are not official methods cited in international standards.

"UC Davis stands behind the report, which was conducted in an IOC-accredited lab using IOC tests," says Flynn.

The U.S. government relies largely on the EU to police European olive oil. In April, the Department of Agriculture (USDA) published a revised set of standards—entirely voluntary—that will go into effect next October. If a producer wants a USDA seal on their bottle, according to Flynn, they will have to comply with the revised guidelines for extra-virgin oil. However, producers can opt to label a product extra virgin without the accompanying USDA seal and avoid the rules.

Terry Bane, chief of the Processed Products Branch of the USDA's Agricultural Marketing Service, the agency responsible for the standards, says there are no plans to establish mandatory standards at this time and that any incentive to do so would have to come from industry. While the USDA is responsible for the oversight of agricultural products, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is responsible for overseeing the labeling and safety of food products such as olive oil, but has no inspection program for olive oils. The agency only checks products when a complaint has been filed.

Armando Manni, a Tuscany-based producer of internationally acclaimed extra-virgin olive oils, would not comment on the study. But he did warn, "I hope all the consumers know that when they are buying an extra-virgin olive oil, they are only buying an oil that at the moment of pressing has been declared an extra-virgin oil. From that moment, the oil starts the natural process of oxidation. This natural process can be dramatically altered by UV rays, oxygen and high temperatures."

Asked for suggestions that might help consumers choose a high-quality extra-virgin olive oil, Flynn says that consumers should "look for an impression of freshness in aroma and flavor ... like cut grass." A good oil should "taste like it came from fresh fruit." Flynn says an oil should be purchased and consumed within a year of harvest. He also suggested looking for a knowledgeable merchant.

Jeff Jacobson
Santa Clarita —  August 1, 2010 8:33pm ET
I don't understand, and find it difficult to accept the notion that crooks in the olive oil industry can be outed, but that those who report on their dishonest practices fail to publish who they are, so we, the consumers, have no information with which to react. I, for one, would not give them a second chance to cheat me, and I would very much like to know their names.
Did they also contribute to your testing, causing you to protect them? This is outrageous.
Warren Kaplan
Altamonte Springs, FL, USA —  August 3, 2010 10:31am ET
The article should have named the resuklts of all the companies they tested with the results.

No one can taste the oil beore buying it. I don't know where Flynn gets his oil. Complete nonsense.
Mitch Frank
New York, NY —  August 3, 2010 2:25pm ET
Below is a list of the oils that were tested in the study. Researchers note that results may be due to a variety of factors, including poor storage or poor shipping, so no conclusions can be drawn solely from this data about improper manufacturing or fraudulent activity. Some bottles from certain brands passed the tests while others from the same brands failed. Debate continues over the proper testing methods, and it's important to note that California olive oil producers helped finance this study. The complete test results can be found at:

http://olivecenter.ucdavis.edu

Passed all testing:
Kirkland Organic
Corto Olive
California Olive Ranch
McEvoy Olive Ranch
Lucero

Failed some or all testing:
Filippo Berio
Bertoli
Pompeian
Colavita
Star
Carapelli
Newman's Own organic
Mezzetta
Mazola
Rachel Ray
Great Value 100%
Safeway Select
365 100% Italian
Bariani

Mitch Frank, News Editor, WS.com
Sergio Gonzalez
Los Angeles, CA USA —  August 5, 2010 12:36pm ET
Frank, thanks for providing the information.
Steve Trachsel
Poway, Ca. —  August 5, 2010 3:07pm ET
Thanks for the extra info Frank!!

Would you like to comment? Want to join or start a discussion?

Become a WineSpectator.com member and you can!
To protect the quality of our conversations, only members may submit comments. Member benefits include access to more than 315,000 reviews in our Wine Ratings Search; a first look at ratings in our Insider, Advance and Tasting Highlights; Value Wines; the Personal Wine List/My Cellar tool, hundreds of wine-friendly recipes and more.

WineRatings+ app: Download now for 340,000+ ratings.