Update: June 8, 2020: The North American Olive Oil Association also filed a standard of identity petition with the FDA. The group, whose members represent the majority of olive oil sold in the United States, included consumer research that found consumers were confused about olive oil terminology and origin.
- A U.S. olive growers association and Deoleo, the largest global producer of olive oil, have jointly submitted a citizen petition to the FDA asking the agency to adopt science-based, enforceable standards for olive oil. They said such standards would ensure consumers know the quality of what they're buying.
- "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 American Olive Oil Producers Association, said in a release.
- The FDA could decide to adopt standards of identity for olive oil, as it has for other products such as canned tuna and bottled water, following a public comment period and adoption of a final rule. If that happened, it would be the first time the federal agency has regulated olive oil, the release noted.
Olive oil producers have been fighting against misleading labeling and misrepresented quality for a long time, so this could be their chance to finally establish standards of identity for their product and potentially cut down on these problems.
This petition was partly sparked by a 2015 National Consumers League investigation that found that six of 11 U.S. and European brands it tested misrepresented the extra virgin quality grade on their products. That investigation led to a separate four-year audit of olive oil products between 2015 and 2019 that found half of them failed to meet international quality standards, according to the release.
Olive oil brands understandably don't want their industry's credibility damaged by those trying to push adulterated or lesser-quality products on consumers. Ignacio Silva, president and CEO of Deoleo, said in the release that the absence of an enforceable regulatory environment makes it difficult for consumers to determine quality. If approved, the FDA citizen petition could lead to higher quality across the category and help to restore consumer trust in olive oil.
Currently, the USDA regulates grades of olive oil in the U.S. and describes the quality of each based on flavor, odor, oleic acid content and other variables. In other countries where olive oil is produced — mainly Spain, Italy, Greece and France — the International Olive Oil Council sets quality standards based on production method, acidity content and flavor.
Establishing standards of identity for olive oil could help by providing regulatory definitions of what the various grades mean. This could enhance authenticity and accurate labeling for extra virgin and virgin olive oil, the petition says.
Deoleo has been pushing for this since they have faced controversy on this issue in recent years. The Spanish company, which produces Bertolli and Carapelli olive oil products, won legal challenges over the quality of those two brands sold in the U.S. One was a permanent injunction against false and misleading statements circulated on social media, and the other dismissed a mislabeling lawsuit. Deoleo also countered claims posted on social media that 2010 lab tests done at the University of California-Davis showed Bertolli olive oil to be "fake." The company called this a misreading of the facts and "character assassination" of a 150-year-old brand.
Other industries are also seeking standards of identity for their products. Former FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb said last year the agency would be reviewing and modernizing its standards of identity. The agency recently held a public hearing to gather input on the process and representatives from canned tuna, bottled water, plant-based milk and beef gathered to argue that the current standards are out of date.
The process of updating existing standards of identity, getting rid of outmoded ones and adopting new ones is likely to take quite a while, but there seems to be a growing consensus that it's overdue. Movement in this area might benefit the olive oil industry and others looking to enforce quality standards for their products and bolster consumer trust.