Thursday, October 29, 2009

Fresher Sounds Better Too

This year’s winners of the American Oil Chemists’ Society (AOCS) award in Part A, B, and C of the Olive Oil Category are E.A.S. Heraklion in Crete (part A and B) and Chemiservice SAS in Bari, Italy (part C). The award is for member laboratories deemed to be the most accurate in a series of tests set by the Society in a given year.

A visit to the Australian Olive Association (AOA) website industry home page will find a newsflash captioned ‘Modern Olives most accurate lab in the world’. The newsflash goes on to reveal that the lab was named the ‘most accurate lab in the world in 2007-2008’ by the AOCS. Yes – but that was this time last year and the news adorned the AOA website for some months then.

So why is the AOA so keen to promote old news? It could be advertorial, or it could be a perceived need to justify accreditation of a laboratory of arguable independence by the AOA for its Code of Practice quality programme, or it could be to give some weight to the recent ‘independent’ research by Modern Olives that claims 80% of extra virgin olive oils imported into Australia failed a range of tests.

Whatever the reason, it is old news. It is like putting last years award sticker on this year’s olive oil.

In olive oil fresher may taste better, in news, fresher sounds better.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

ACCC Adopts IOC Standard for Olive Oil

In carrying out an investigation into reports that Extra Virgin Olive Oil being sold in Australia was not true to label, the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC), used the International Olive Council (IOC) Trade Standard for Olive Oil as the benchmark for testing.

Despite stating that ‘currently there is no mandatory standard for extra virgin olive oil……’ the ACCC set a strong precedent by using the IOC standard and stating ‘The IOC standard defines extra virgin olive oil and sets criteria for purity and quality. While the standard is not mandatory, it is a useful and recognised guide for establishing the essential elements of genuine extra virgin olive oil’.

Effectively the ACCC has adopted the IOC standard for court enforceable undertakings. This could set an important legal precedent in Australia for legal actions involving specifications for olive oil.

The Australian Olive Association (AOA) President, Paul Miller, was reported by the Weekly Times (October 21 2009) as being ‘impressed’ by the ACCC’s action. He was also reported as saying ‘We would like the Australian standard to be law…….that would make life easier for (the ACCC)’.

This is unlikely as the so called 'Australian standard' – a standard developed for the AOA Code of Practice available to AOA members only – falls far short of the requirements for purity and organoleptic (taste) testing in the IOC Trade Standard. Its lack of rigour could create many problems for the ACCC in any legal challenges related to olive oil meeting specification.

It would be far easier if everyone in the Australian Olive Industry adopted the IOC Trade Standards and, to provide regional differentiation, added to them by specifying additional source and quality requirements. The ACCC action probably means that this will be inevitable.

Monday, October 26, 2009

ACCC Only Credible Independent Watchdog

It must be that time of year, an ‘independent’ laboratory has tested imported olive oils again and there are claims that 80% of extra virgin olive oils imported into Australia were not extra virgin.

Last year 'independent' tests commissioned by the Australian Olive Association (AOA) and carried out by the Australian Oils Research Laboratory claimed all the imported olive oils tested were not what they claimed to be. The independence of the AOA, which represents Australian producers, is obviously questionable, as is that of the Australian Oils Research Laboratory whose spokesperson was reported to have said on ABC Rural Report (Report from the Riverina, 29 May 2009) that he believes the (International Olive Council, IOC) Standards are too restrictive and find fault in Australian oils that are merely different – and in his opinion the best. Hardly a statement from an independent watchdog.

This year, again with uncanny timing to coincide with the AOA annual bash in Canberra, another set of tests have been released. An ABC Rural Report on 22 October states ‘A study has found that more than 80 per cent of imported "extra virgin" olive oils are falsely labelled. Lisa Rowntree, from the Australian Olive Association, which represents olive growers, says the tests were done in an independent laboratory near Geelong, and the problem makes it difficult for the local industry to compete’.

But Paul Berryman, from the Australian Olive Oil Association (AOOA), which represents olive oil importers, says very few imported extra virgin oils were found to be impure and the test was done to discredit importers. ‘Now they are obviously just deciding that the best way to market their product is to discredit their opposition’.

It may well be that Mr Berryman is right. The independent laboratory near Geelong is Modern Olives which, as a wholly owned subsidiary of Boundary Bend, is far from independent. Boundary Bend claims to be Australia’s largest producer of extra virgin olive oil and would directly benefit from a crackdown on imports. It is also highly unlikely that all imported extra virgin olive oil was tested so a claim that 80% were found to be falsely labelled is misleading.

This tactic should also worry Australian producers as the ‘independent testing’, apparently endorsed by the AOA, could also be directed at Australian brands and used to discredit them to gain market advantage.

Fortunately for the Australian Olive Industry, which includes both local producers and importers, the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) has recently conducted an independent investigation. Testing a selection of imported and locally produced oils, labelled extra virgin, against the International Olive Council standards, only three samples, all imported, were found not to be extra virgin.

Interestingly, in using the IOC standard as the benchmark for quality and purity, the ACCC has adopted a standard which is far more stringent than the AOA standard for its Australian Extra Virgin Brand which does not require any of the tests for purity.

It would also be interesting to know whether the ‘independent’ laboratory from Geelong, Modern Olives, tested the full range of Australian ‘extra virgin olive oils’ and refined olive oils for compliance with the IOC specifications for sterol composition. Modern Olives, through its nursery operations, has been a major supplier of the Barnea variety which research has shown has a high level of campesterol causing much of the oil produced by this variety to fall outside IOC specifications for extra virgin. Boundary Bend, in buying the Timbercorp assets, has also become the owner of groves which have substantial plantings of Barnea.

Again, it seems to be a case of adopting the IOC standards when it is convenient and saying they are too restrictive when inconvenient - ‘do as I say, not as I do’.

The Australian Olive Industry representative organisations – The AOA and the Australian Olive Oil Association (AOOA) – should agree to a regime of independent testing through the ACCC to ensure that all olive oil sold in Australia meets IOC specification. This is the only way to put an end to the ‘them and us’ public brawling which harms the consumer perception of all olive oil – locally produced and imported.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Attempts to Change International Olive Oil Standards Stall

The attempts by Australia to change the Codex Alimentarius ‘Standard for Olive Oils and Olive Pomace Oils’ seem to have stalled. The Australian delegation has been leading the charge to amend the standards to allow higher levels of linolenic acid in olive oils to accommodate apparent variations in local growing conditions. Recently, the arguments for the proposed amendments have been extended to include higher campesterol levels, mainly to accommodate the high levels exhibited by the Barnea variety which has been extensively planted in Australia by large investment groves.

The higher than specification levels of linolenic acid and campesterol preclude the export of ‘outlier’ olive oils to the European Community, USA and other countries that are signatories to the Codex Alimentarius Standard for International Trade.

The levels of linolenic acid and campesterol in olive oils are important in detecting contamination or adulteration with vegetable oils.

In response to a report submitted by the Codex Committee on Fats and Oils to the thirty-second session of the Joint FAO/WHO standards programme of the Codex Alimentarius Commission, the Committee agreed to go back a step and circulate two alternative proposals for a footnote to the level of linolenic acid in the standards which would allow higher levels as long as three other tests were undertaken. One of these three tests would be that the campesterol level would need to be lower than 3.5% (normal allowable 4.0%) of total sterol composition. It then determined that if no agreement could be reached at the next session, the Committee would recommend the discontinuation of work on the level of linolenic acid.

Given the arguments, including those from the European Community, put forward by other delegations against the proposed changes to the standards, it is unlikely that proposed changes to campesterol levels will make any progress in the foreseeable future.

This creates a problem for those enterprises that have large volumes of olive oil from the Barnea variety in Australia which is high in campesterol. There is not enough low campesterol olive oil available locally to blend the level down to be within specification. The oil cannot be exported to countries that are signatories to Codex, and it cannot be refined as even after refining the campesterol level is likely to be out of specification for refined olive oil.

It would appear that the only option for unloading this high campesterol oil, which does not comply with international standards for olive oil, is to sell it on the local market as extra virgin olive oil as sanctioned within the Australian Olive Association Extra Virgin Olive Oil specifications.

The implication of this for other producers in Australia is that the prices for EVOO will be forced down as the large volume of non-compliant oil is sold off locally. There are also implications for New Zealand producers as standards for olive oil in Australia and New Zealand are set by Food Standards Australia and New Zealand (FSANZ). The apparent acceptance of the sale of high campesterol oil by FSANZ may mean that cheap high campesterol oil may overflow into the New Zealand market from Australia.

Simon Field
Olive Business