Olive Oil Has a Fraud Problem—Can the FDA Fix It?
Trade groups are petitioning the federal government to actively enforce standards in the olive oil industry.
Olive oil comes in a wide range of flavors. Some are delicate and fruity while others can be peppery and cough-inducing (in a good way!). But olive oil can also be bland, petrolic, or even rancid due to a lack of quality control and, sometimes, even a lack of actual olive oil. Eight years after Tom Mueller penned Extra Virginity: The Sublime and Scandalous World of Olive Oil—an entire book on fraud in the industry—olive oil is still fighting a battle against mislabeled and subpar products. And this week, the American Olive Oil Producers Association (AOOPA) and the Spanish producer Deoleo have asked the FDA to do something about it.
On Monday, the AOOPA and Deoleo—the world's largest olive oil producer known for America's best-selling Bertolli brand among others—submitted a citizen petition to the FDA asking for "science-based, enforceable standards for olive oil," a product the FDA has never regulated before. "Buying quality extra virgin olive oil is hard, but not because there aren't quality products on supermarket shelves. It's because there are just no rules to stop bad actors from misrepresenting what they're selling," Adam Englehardt, chairman of the AOOPA, said in the announcement.
This isn't to say the federal government has no olive oil standards. In 2010, the USDA updated its Standards for Grades of Olive Oil and Olive-Pomace Oil, modernizing a grading system that's actually existed since 1948, according to the Olive Oil Times. However, unlike what's being asked of the FDA, under the USDA, these guidelines were largely voluntary and not enforced. As a result, olive oil hasn't notably improved.
In both 2015 and 2019, tests performed by the National Consumers League found that about half of all olive oils on store shelves weren't everything that they were purported to be on the label. And the issue goes way beyond flavor. "It's economic and food fraud because you can't be sure unless you're a very well informed consumer that a bottle labeled ‘extra virgin olive oil' is actually that very high quality," Sally Greenberg, CEO of the National Consumers League, told me. "The value of having extra virgin olive oil is that it's actually good for you. It has some very specific healthful properties that are positive for consumers and their families. So you lose out on those. You lose out on the good flavor that you get from really wonderful extra virgin olive oil. And you pay top dollar for substandard olive oil."
Clearly, none of these issues are new, and the AOOPA's effort isn't the first time the FDA has been approached on this matter, either. The North American Olive Oil Association (NAOOA)—"whose members represent the majority of olive oil sold in the United States," according to its own account—filed a similar citizen's petition in 2012 which was never acted upon and was then withdrawn earlier this year in the hope of submitting a replacement. Now, the AOOPA and Deoleo have beaten them to the punch. (As the world's largest olive oil producer, Deoleo has clear interests in being involved in this process.)
"The petition filed this week shows we are not alone in our belief that olive oil needs a federal standard of identity to eliminate confusion among consumers and promote fair dealing in the industry," the NAOOA said in a written statement provided to me by Executive Director Joseph R. Profaci. "We've worked hard to bring everyone in the industry together, including the petitioners, over the past two years to find common ground on this important matter. The entities that filed the recent joint petition represent a small but meaningful share of the U.S. market, and it's a positive development to see them support many of the same goals for which our broader organization has advocated for years."
That said, the NAOOA also explained that its refiled petition is still in the works. "The NAOOA's forthcoming petition will in some key respects go further than the Nov. 5 petition in protecting consumers with respect to quality and authenticity," the association's statement continues. "Our petition will recommend that the FDA's standard of identity be rooted in widely accepted global standards like Codex, in which the United States actively participates. It will also consider adopting new testing techniques as soon as they are sufficiently tested and proven reliable for their intended purposes."
Jumping back to the AOOPA, its petition is heavily rooted in the successful standards California adopted in 2014, which Englehardt suggests proves similar standards could work on a national scale. In fact, the AOOPA petition itself states, "The definitions, grades, and parameters [proposed here] are largely similar to those implemented in California with great success." Specifically, the petition asks for varying grades of olive oil—starting at the top with "extra virgin olive oil"—to be officially standardized "based on requirements for ingredients, extraction methods, free acidity levels, degrees of fruitiness, median defects, and other characteristics." It also asks for new chemical tests of pyropheophytins (PPPs) and 1,2-diacylglycerol (DAGs) "to identify degraded and rancid oils."
Appreciative of the similarities, the Olive Oil Commission of California (OOCC) quickly chimed in with their own statement as well, supporting the AOOPA's petition. "It is imperative to increasing the sales of domestically-grown olive oil that our product is backed by credible, mandatory standards consumers can trust," Brady Whitlow, the commission's chairman, explained. "The OOCC applauds this action by the U.S. olive oil industry to encourage the government to adopt nation-wide, science-based, enforceable standards for olive oil… California has been successful in dramatically improving the quality of olive oil grown in our state, and, more importantly, our standards are working to ensure consumers can trust what is printed on the label when they purchase California olive oil."
Clearly, support exists across the American olive oil industry for enforceable standards. And though different groups may have differences in how they believe these regulations should come together, they hope this larger agreement will finally spur the FDA into action. As the AOOPA points out, similar citizen petitions have worked in getting the FDA to adopt regulations for other products in the past. And in the end, the real winners here will hopefully be the consumers.