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.