Saturday, February 7, 2009

Australian Extra Virgin Brand – A Double Standard?

The ‘Australian Extra Virgin’ Brand (the Brand) has recently been launched under the auspices of the Australian Olive Association (AOA). The brand is underpinned by ‘The Code of Practice for The Olive Industry’ (the Code).

The Brand is only available to members of the AOA or organisations approved by them. While being a signatory to the Code is voluntary, in AOA promotional material it is referred to as ‘a Code of Practice for the industry’, and therefore has ramifications for all olive oil producers and traders. Its success or failure will have an impact on the entire industry.

The launch included a media publicity campaign and a public attack on a number of imported brands of olive oil taken from supermarket shelves and tested for the AOA by the Australian Oils Research Institute.

The website of the Brand (1) states that ‘The Code of Practice (2) guarantees the authenticity and quality of certified products and distinguishes them from imported products’.

The certification requires that ‘the products must have undergone organoleptic and chemical testing and be Australian’.

On the face of it, it is a progressive step towards improving the quality of Australian Olive Oil in the market place and increasing consumer confidence in buying the local product.

But having been so public in its general attack on ‘low grade’ imported brands – some of which were named on the

ABC 7.30 Report on 8th October 2008 – the AOA can expect its Brand to come under intense scrutiny.

Is the Code robust enough to withstand this scrutiny or is it flawed to the extent that non-compliance will be revealed and the Brand compromised in the same way as the AOA compromised imported brands?

The Code describes a series of production and quality assurance procedures with which signatories must comply. One would assume that as Australia is a signatory to the Codex Alimentarius (Codex) (3) – the United Nations sponsored international Code covering food production and processing – the Codex standard for Olive Oil would be the starting point for compliance.

There is also a standard promulgated by the International Olive Council (IOC) to which Australia has observer status – and by implication subscribes to the IOC ‘Trade Standard Applying to Olive Oils and Olive-Pomace Oils’ (4).

International standards – Codex Alimentarius and IOC Trade Standard.

Standards for olive oil in both these documents require that the product undergoes sensory analysis by a recognised tasting panel and a number of chemical tests are carried out by a recognised laboratory. Recognition of tasting panels and chemical testing laboratories is granted by the IOC on an annual basis and a current list can be obtained from their website (5).

The laboratories recognised for chemical testing are divided into two categories: ‘public or private laboratories that issue test certificates at the request of third parties, and laboratories belonging to olive oil companies that analyse their own oils’.

Sensory (Organoleptic/Taste) Testing

From November 2007 to November 2008 of IOC recognised sensory panels did not list an Australian panel. One Australian panel was listed in the 2006/2007 listing but was subsequently delisted. It can therefore be argued that during the period when the first olive oils bearing the Brand appeared there was no capacity in Australia to officially certify that an olive oil meets international standard and that any certification must be supplied by one of the listed overseas panels.

In the new listing of recognised panels published by the IOC on 1 December 2008, the Australian Panel has regained its recognition for the next year.

The Australian Extra Virgin Code of Practice requires that the olive oil must ‘have been assessed organoleptically by a person or persons accredited by The Australian Olive Association Ltd or in accordance with processes determined by the Australian Olive Association Ltd……………….’

Information provided by the AOA states that for the Brand The organoleptic testing to be done by a panel of five, with one person having AOA Level Two training and the other four having Level One (or equivalent)’.

It appears that to achieve Levels 1 and Levels 2 training the tasters must have completed Course 1 and Course 2 of training provided under the auspices of the AOA. Course 1 – Understanding Extra Virgin Olive Oil - is a 6 hour course and Course 2 – Principles and Practices of Olive Oil Blending – is a 3.5 hour course. There does not appear to be any testing of a participant’s tasting performance in either course (6).

Given this level of training it would be difficult to argue that the AOA recognised tasting panels have the authority to officially classify olive oils to international standard and thereby determine the diminished financial return from large quantities of olive oil which may be downgraded.

It is fundamental to international sensory testing that tasting of olive oil is conducted by a panel of at least 8 panellists to eliminate personal taste variations. The IOC accredited panels undertake a number of tests each year to ensure that their conclusions conform to international benchmarks. The IOC also requires that a minimum of 8 panellists conduct any tasting to classify olive oils.

Given the serious financial loss resulting from olive oils being classified as virgin or lampante, and not extra virgin, there should be no compromise in establishing this testing regime in Australia.

Any shortfall in capacity in Australia to undertake the numerous sensory tests required each year can be overcome by recognising compliance certificates issued by overseas IOC accredited sensory testing panels.

Any recognition of an individual or individuals by the AOA to undertake the sensory testing outside the IOC recognised panels brings into question the integrity of sensory assessment and therefore the Brand which relies on it.

According to media reports, some of the imported extra virgin olive oil brands named by the AOA as not meeting international standards were downgraded on sensory/taste tests. Unless the taste tests were carried out overseas by IOC recognised panels, these tests have no validity. The same can be said of the taste testing of the Australian brands which were vaunted as meeting all standards.

Chemical Testing

The purity criteria for olive oil listed by the IOC Trade Standard includes the following tests:

  1. Fatty acid composition as determined by gas chromatography
  2. Trans fatty acid content
  3. Sterol and triterpene dialcohol composition
  4. Desmethylsterol composition
  5. Total sterol content
  6. Erythrodiol and uvaol content
  7. Wax content
  8. Maximum difference between the actual and theoretical ECN42 triacylglycerol content
  9. Stigmastadiene content
  10. Content of 2-glyceryl monopalmitate
  11. Unsaponifiable matter

These tests are used to determine any contamination/adulteration of extra virgin olive oil with refined olive oils or other vegetable oils.

There are also a series of quality tests which are indicators of the stability of the olive oil, and residues. These tests are:

  1. Free acidity
  2. Peroxide value
  3. Absorbency in ultra-violet
  4. Moisture and volatile matter
  5. Insoluble impurities in light petroleum
  6. Trace elements (iron, copper)

The chemical testing criteria for Australian Extra Virgin as stated in the Code is ambiguous.

In the introduction it states that ‘It supplements the provisions of the Food Standards Australia New Zealand Code and related legislation, The Trade Practices Act, State and Territory fair trading food safety and health legislation, and international rules and codes with similar aims, such as those of the International Olive Council and the Codex Alimentarius Commission’.

This statement (and in particular the use of the word ‘supplement’ ) implies that the IOC and Codex olive oil standards are the basic requirement for signatories to the Code and that any olive oils carrying the Brand must have provided testing data from internationally recognised laboratories to prove compliance to all the tests.

The ‘Quality and Labelling Guidelines’ for Australian Extra Virgin’ defined in the Code only require the following chemical tests:

  1. Free fatty acid contents
  2. Peroxide value
  3. Ultra-violet absorbency tests

This list only includes three of the quality criteria tests in the IOC/Codex chemical tests and there are no tests for adulteration or contamination with refined olive oils and vegetable oils. The ABC 7.30 Report based on AOA findings made a number of assertions regarding the presence of refined olive oils and other vegetable oils in imported brands.

If the only tests required for the Australian Extra Virgin Brand are the three quality criteria listed in the Code, it is only a matter of time before a Brand oil is found not to comply with international standards. The olive oil supply chain in any producing country, including Australia, involves a number of steps where varietal variation, contamination, adulteration or deterioration can occur:

  • Some olive varieties in Australia are known to produce oil which has above standard linolenic acid levels – one of the indicators of contamination with other vegetable oils.
  • Some olive varieties in Australia also produce oil which has above standard sterol levels, especially campesterol.
  • Contamination may occur in transport, storage or packing where other vegetable oils or refined olive oils have been handled.
  • All olive oils, imported or Australian, will deteriorate over time. This deterioration is accelerated when the product is subjected to adverse conditions of heat and light in storage, transit or on retail shelves. The chance of this is increased with the conditions encountered with exports.

The risk of contamination is recognised by one brand of Australian Extra Virgin Olive Oil in a spray can which carries the following information on the label ‘may contain traces of soya bean lecithin’. The brand is a signatory to the Code.

One explanation for the Code not requiring the full international trade standard testing regime is that the cost of testing will be a disincentive to participate. However, compromising the integrity of Australian Extra Virgin Olive Oil through adopting sub-standard testing requirements may in the long term extract a far greater cost from the Australian Olive Industry.

Recognised Laboratories

There are currently two Australian laboratories recognised by the AOA as competent to test olive oils for the Brand.

It is reasonable to propose that any chemical analysis used as a basis for certification by the Code, or for assessment of breaches, should be undertaken by an independent and IOC recognised laboratory.

Any determination made by the Code compliance committee will have to withstand legal scrutiny of the testing regime when disputes arise. This reinforces the imperative to ensure that all sensory and chemical testing is independent and to International Olive Council and Codex Alimentarius standard.

It would make sense to recognise all IOC recognised chemical laboratories worldwide as competent to undertake testing for the Code. Currently testing certificates issued by overseas IOC recognised laboratories would appear to be ineligible for compliance with the Code.

Breach of the Code and Product Recall

The Code states that ‘Any signatory may initiate the testing of an olive product’. This validates the monitoring and testing of competing brands of any of the Code signatories. This could be used as a tool to gain competitive advantage and discredit competing brands. This practice could lead to vexatious claims.

In such an instance the independence of members of the Code Compliance Committee and of the testing laboratories would seem of paramount importance.

In the provisions for a breach of the Code, it states: ‘The Committee shall take no action in respect of a first breach of the Code arising as a direct result from non-compliance of olive products provided the signatory had obtained a certificate of compliance from the supplier in respect of the offending supplies’. There is no stipulation as to where the certificate of compliance should be obtained or what tests the certificate of compliance should cover.

The Code therefore does not require immediate product recall or suspension of non-compliant products. After a testing process that could take up to two months, the offending brand is required to implement an effective compliance programme.

The non-complying product could be on retail shelves for considerable time, and if detected by other monitoring programmes not associated with the AOA could bring adverse publicity and compromise the Brand. The negative publicity associated with this may have consequences for all Australian olive oils that bear the Brand.

Guarantees and Liability

The website for ‘Australian Extra Virgin’ states that ‘The Code of Practice guarantees the authenticity and quality of certified products…………..’

This guarantee has far-reaching legal implications. If a certified product is found not to comply with international standards recognised in Australia, as the owner of the Brand, The Australian Olive Association may be liable for the failure of the guarantee. With a testing regime that does not appear to meet the requirements of international trade and Codex standards, this is a very real possibility.

The liability may also extend to the Compliance Committee and those accredited by the AOA to undertake sensory and chemical testing to international standard.


As it stands, the testing regime for the Code of Practice underpinning the Australian Extra Virgin Brand appears to be considerably less rigorous than that required for international trade in olive oil.

  1. The accreditation system for sensory analysis and tasters falls well short of the requirements for recognition by the International Olive Council.

  1. The chemical testing required does not include contamination/adulteration tests.

  1. The independence of the testing process is questionable.

To be credible, the Brand should have as its minimum requirement that all branded oils meet all international trade standards and provide testing certification by independent laboratories and tasting panels recognised by the International Olive Council to prove this.

All overseas IOC recognised laboratories and sensory panels should be accredited by the AOA Code of Practice and classification certificates issued by them accepted as valid.

The additional selling point for the brand will be that it is authentically Australian and fresh.

To protect the interests of consumers, Australia needs a system of testing olive oils for compliance that is independent and meets international trade standards.

Actions taken on non-compliance should protect consumers while being sensitive to possible collateral damage to the production and retailing of olive oil in Australia.

In the words of the AOA President in his address to the AOA Conference in Brisbane 2003, ‘The approach to regulation of olive products needs to be careful. We do not want consumers ever thinking that there is something ‘wrong’ with olives or olive oil’.

Simon Field


Reference Documents and websites



(3) Codex Standard 33.




Simon Field is an Australian olive oil producer and trader. He is a former Executive Director of the Australian Institute of Agricultural Science. As an olive oil trader he supplies Australian olive oil to a number of Australian brands. He has a commercial interest in an Australian olive oil mentioned on the ABC 7.30 Report and the subsequent discussion of compliance with International Olive Council specifications for Australian olive oil.