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Tess Vigeland: Americans buy about $1 billion worth of olive oil every year. More than 99 percent of it is imported from the Mediterranean. If you’ve wandered the oil and vinegar aisle in the supermarket, you know that extra virgin olive oil commands a premium price. But hold the dressing. A recent study found that many of those top-shelf oils are not as virginal as we think.
April Dembosky reports.
April Dembosky: Dan Flynn is an olive researcher at the University of California at Davis. He walks me through the campus olive orchards lined with Mission, Manzanillo and Kalamata trees.
Dan Flynn: Probably 25 different varieties that come from Spain, Italy, France, Greece.
He holds a sprig of olive leaves up to the sunlight. It looks just like an image you’d see on a bottle of olive oil in the supermarket. And it’s what’s inside those bottles that Dan Flynn is interested in. His researchers tested 19 brands of extra virgin olive oil to see just how virgin they really were. A panel of accredited tasters tested the oils first. And wo-thirds of imported oils that claimed to be extra virgin didn’t taste extra virgin.
Flynn: One could describe it as the taste of crayons, for example, or an old catcher’s mitt.
Next, researchers took the oils to the lab. They measured them against virginity standards set by European and Australian olive councils.
Flynn: We did a number of different chemistry tests, which can tell you whether the oil is oxidized, meaning it’s been exposed too much to heat, or light or age.
California oils did much better. Only 10 percent failed the test — but the study was funded by California growers. Companies who import olive oil to the U.S. are suspicious.
Bob Bauer is the president of the trade group that represents foreign producers. He’s especially wary of the taste test results.
Bob Bauer: The people who do this type of testing, they can readily tell if an oil is from the Mediterranean, from California, from Australia. Since they most likely knew who was paying for the test, it had to create some kind of bias.
As for the science, Bauer’s group has done their own chemical tests. He says his company’s labs in Spain found very few problems.
Sounds of beeping at a supermarket checkout line
All this fighting over virginity isn’t much help for consumers trying to decide which bottle to put in their grocery basket. There are no regulations governing the purity of olive oil.
Rayne Pegg: When you go down an olive oil aisle, there may be 40 different olive oils. And you’ve got to decide, is it worth paying the $16.99 versus the $9.99?
Rayne Pegg is with the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The agency wants to create consistency in the marketplace. So it will update its definitions of virgin and extra virgin olive oil this October.
Pegg: It creates a level playing field when marketing product. Processors can use this to certify that “what I’m selling you is what the label says on the front.”
But the new standards are voluntary. They only apply to companies that want to put the USDA seal of approval on their product. That’s not a big marketing plus for foreign olive oils who’ve come to rely on images of verdant olive groves or Tuscan villas on their label.
In Davis, Calif., I’m April Dembosky for Marketplace.
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