Saturday, October 16, 2010

Is There a Perfect Storm Forming for the Australian Olive Industry?

Many olive groves across Australia planted between 1997 and 2005 will be coming into full production in 2011. The recent drought-breaking rains across most of Australia will enhance this production and 2011 looks to be a bumper year for production of olive oil.

A perfect storm describes an event where a rare combination of circumstances will aggravate a situation drastically.
The perfect storm gathering for the olive industry will be from the coincidence of the following circumstances:
1. Potentially the largest volume of olive oil produced in Australia as groves reach mature commercial production.
2. Alternate bearing resulted in 2009 producing a lower yield in some states such as Western Australia so 2010 can be expected to produce larger yields.
3. Good rains throughout growing regions can be expected to enhance yields.
4. The strong Australian dollar making imported olive oil cheaper, the International Olive Council reports an increase of 35% in exports to Australia in 2009/2010.
5. Waning consumer confidence is being reflected in declining retail sales across all retail goods in Australia.
6. The strong Australian dollar making exports to USA and Europe less competitive
7. Near record carryover stocks from the 2009/2010 season in Spain, where almost 50% of the world’s olive oil is produced.
8. The International Olive Council predicts a good campaign in Spain for the forthcoming harvest with near record yields and slightly higher production than the previous season worldwide.

Given all these trends the Australian olive oil industry could be in for stormy times. The most affected are likely to be the larger enterprises which trade at world parity prices. Smaller boutique producers should be less affected as their markets are mainly local, however some downward pressure on prices and more competitive selling conditions can be expected.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Streetwise on Olive Oil Judging

Ask anyone in the street the unqualified question, ‘Do you think a person should be a judge in a competition in which they have entered a product which they produced or have an interest in?’, the answer will invariably be no.

So why in many Australian olive oil competitions are there judges who are in this position?

The answers to this question most frequently given include ‘the best judges are chosen’ or ‘in a new and small industry there are not enough competent judges available’. Surely in the Australian olive industry, now about 15 years old, there are enough producers and users to fill a judging panel. And if there are not, the problem could be easily solved by the policy of not allowing judges to enter their own oils – they could still judge and there would be no disquiet about vested interests.

The fact that there is disquiet is confirmed by the recent article by presiding judge of the Australian National Extra Virgin Olive Oil Show published in the
Olive Oil Times. The majority of the article is devoted to defending the use of judges associated with entries and describing the mechanism to minimise their influence on the result.

The article states that in the final judging for best on show the score sheets from judges with oils in the final selection are destroyed, thereby negating any influence they have on the final result.

In the 2009 Australian National Show, of the 26 judges who judged in the competition, 11 had entries in which they have an apparent interest. In the 5 extra virgin olive oil classes, two classes were won by oils which were associated with judges. Three judges had an association with the overall winner of the competition.

This means that at least 3 judging sheets were destroyed in the final judgement for best on show. If no judges’ sheets had to be destroyed because of interests in oils being judged, the result may well have been different – three independent judges would have had their scores included. The only conclusion can be that the destruction of judging sheets does have an influence on the final result.

It is in the best interest of the Australian Olive Industry to remove the perception of vested interests in olive oil competitions by adopting the policy that judges are not invited to judge if they enter an olive oil with which they have an association. Then it is their decision as to whether entering an oil or judging is more important.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

UC Davis Olive Center Report on Olive Oil Quality May be the Subject of Intense Scrutiny

The recent report published by the UC Davis Olive Center on the quality of imported and local olive oils on sale in California in the USA may come under intense scrutiny.

Much of the scrutiny could occur during the court proceedings associated with a proposed class action brought by a collection of Californian food service individuals and enterprises against the suppliers and retailers selling the allegedly non-compliant olive oil.

The integrity of the process of collecting the oils for testing, sample retention, testing procedures and reporting could be put under the microscope by the defendant’s lawyers.

The Report questions the quality of extra virgin olive oils sold at some of the world’s biggest retailers, supplied by some of the world’s largest olive oil conglomerates.

Apart from the millions of dollars in compensation likely to be claimed, at stake is the reputation of well known brands and millions of dollars of wholesale and retail income. The USA imports substantially more olive oil than any country outside the European Union. It can be expected that the multi-nationals involved will defend the brands vigorously. Money to do this is unlikely to be a limitation.

On the other hand, the apparent Australian involvement in the Report, both by the use of standards promulgated by the Australian Olive Association (AOA) which are not part of the International Olive Council (IOC) Trade Standard for Olive Oil and Olive-Pomace Oil, and the Australian Oils Research Laboratory in conducting the testing, may be required to defend their actions. This could cost substantial legal fees, and even if a source of funding is available to do this, it will be major distraction to the AOA for the duration of the court action – which may be years.

The AOA is acknowledged on the first page of the Report ‘We value the leadership of Dr Richard Cantrill, technical director of the American Oil Chemists’ Society (AOCS); the advice of the AOCS Expert Panel on Olive Oil (particularly Bruce Golino, member of the board of directors of the California Olive Oil Council and Paul Miller, President of the Australian Olive Association)…….’. The AOA is mentioned 5 times in the report - it is unlikely that the association did not have prior knowledge of these references.

This begs the question as to why the AOA, which claims to be the peak body of the Australian olive industry, took the decision to implicate the industry by apparently giving overt support to testing in another country?

There are many other questions which should be asked: did the AOA have a mandate from its members to support testing in the USA; if not, who is going to pay for any costs resulting from the legal action; why confirmatory testing was not undertaken by a second IOC accredited laboratory in Europe; and why testing methods (DAGs and PPP) which have not been accepted by the IOC as reliable were used?

And one final question – what has the Australian olive industry gained from the whole exercise?

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

All Olive Oil is Better, Extra Virgin is the Best

As producers of extra virgin olive oil, it seems a convenient part of our marketing strategy to denigrate refined olive oils which are sold as ‘extra light’, or when blended with extra virgin olive oil as ‘pure’ olive oil.

Consumers who buy these refined products are already using olive oil so ‘upgrading’ their purchasing behaviour to buying extra virgin makes sense.

Refining plays an important part in any olive industry as it removes lampante olive oil from the market. Lampante olive oil is the classification for oils which have high free fatty acid or peroxide levels or have organoleptic faults such as rancidity. Apart from soap making or sale for biofuels there are few practical ways of stopping this oil from being sold as extra virgin.

There are also consumers who do not like the strong flavours of extra virgin olive oil and are looking for a flavourless vegetable oil. Many of these are in the foodservice and manufacturing industries which require consistent and flavourless oil.

With the push to sell olive oil into the countries where much of the cooking takes place at high temperatures, for example in a wok, the higher smoke point of refined olive oil (242°C ) over that of extra virgin olive oil (190°C to 210°C, depending on quality) is another selling point.

It is important to note that during refining most (around 88%) of the anti-oxidants (insaponifiable fraction) are removed from extra virgin olive oil along with the free fatty acids. However, the fat or oil (saponifiable fraction) is relatively unchanged. Therefore refined olive oil still has many of the health benefits attributed to monounsaturated fats and sterols.

During the deodorising and bleaching phases of refining, which often take place at high temperatures, there may the formation of a low level of trans fats which are absent in the unrefined olive oil. This transformation takes place in refining processes used for all vegetable oils commonly available in supermarkets..

So maintaining its high ratio of monounsaturated fatty acids makes refined olive oil better than the other mainstream vegetable oils, many of which are solvent extracted and all of which are refined.

As an industry it should be our objective to persuade consumers to shift from other vegetable oils to olive oil. This would then give us an increased number of converts to upgrade to extra virgin olive oil.

Much of the present publicity denigrating refined olive oils will have the opposite effect – make customers lose confidence in the quality of all olive oils, extra virgin or refined. They will then switch to the cheaper vegetable oils such as canola/rapeseed oil which also has a high level of monounsaturated fatty acids – but still lower than refined olive oil

Friday, July 9, 2010

AOA 'Australian Extra Virgin Olive Oil' Brand Fails First Test

The annual survey of Australian supermarket oils by the consumer magazine Choice is the first comprehensive independent test of the quality of Australian olive oils carrying the Australian Olive Association’s (AOA) ‘Australian Extra Virgin Olive Oil’ certification and brandmark’.

The survey had both good and bad news for the Australian olive industry. The good news was that of the top ten olive oils ranked on taste, nine were Australian. The bad news was that four Australian olive oil brands failed to meet the International Olive Council Trade Standard, and three of these were certified by the AOA as ‘Australian Extra Virgin’ and carried the AOA brandmark.

Over the last two years there have been numerous surveys of supermarket oils carried out at the instigation of the AOA as part of their campaign to persuade Australian consumers to buy locally produced extra virgin olive oil. These surveys have generally denigrated imported brands and lauded the local product – without publishing the full results of the testing.

Choice selected 28 brands of olive oil labelled ‘extra virgin’ and commissioned taste and chemical testing in accordance with the internationally recognised International Olive Oil Council’s ‘Trade Standard for Olive Oil and Olive-Pomace Oil’. The tests are designed to determine the quality and purity of the oil.

Twelve of the olive oils tested were Australian and for the first time the full results of the testing have been published. The first eight oils on the ‘taste’ ranking were Australian showing that in general the local oils were fresher. Of these, five carried the Australian Extra Virgin Brand.

The AOA claims on its website ; ‘The Association has recently introduced a Code of Practice which will guarantee the authenticity and quality of certified products and distinguish them from imported products. To be certified, products must be Australian and have undergone organoleptic (taste) and chemical testings’.

The report in Choice ( claims that ‘to be certified (under the AOA brand) products must be Australian and meet internationally accepted specifications as determined by organoleptic (sensory) and chemical testing’.

This is not correct, the AOA certification requires no testing for purity which would detect adulteration or contamination and the organoleptic testing requirement does not meet the IOC panel testing criteria.

Because of this, unfortunately for the AOA Brand, three (37.5%) of the oils certified Australian Extra Virgin failed to meet the IOC testing regime on which the survey was based. On the taste test, one of the AOA certified oils was described as tired and another with fermentation present.

Consumers can justifiably expect 100% compliance for AOA certified brands, given the AOA guarantee.

Subsequently Standards Australia has announced that it has established a committee to develop a new Australian Standard for all classifications of olive oil.

The committee membership includes representatives from both Australia and New Zealand covering retailers, importers, growers, government and consumers.

The standards developed by the committee will not be mandatory unless mandated by government.

Let’s hope that the committee develops olive oil standards that are based on the IOC International Trade Standard and treat all olive oils equitably, whether locally produced or imported. These standards should then mandated and enforced by the relevant government departments in Australia and New Zealand.

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

AOA, ONZ and United States Extra Virgin Olive Oil Standards Compared

AOA, ONZ and United States Extra Virgin Olive Oil Standards Compared

The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) has recently published quality standards for United States (US) extra virgin olive oil which become effective in October.

The respective olive industry grower associations in Australia (Australian Olive Association - AOA) and New Zealand (Olives New Zealand - ONZ) have for two or so years been trying to establish quality standards for the extra virgin olive oil production of their members, in the case of the AOA, and the industry in New Zealand.

Standards are established for two basic reasons. Firstly, to ensure that the quality and integrity of a product are met and, secondly, as a marketing tool to differentiate a product from competing products. It can be argued that, for associations a third reason is to generate income as the custodian of the standards through certification and licensing fees.

It is timely to assess the new USDA and existing AOA and ONZ standards in the light of these three objectives.

Enforcing the Olive Oil Standards

The first major point of difference between the standards is the custodianship. In the USA, the standards have been developed by the independent USDA. The government department will also be responsible for testing, certification, and compliance. It appears that no income will accrue to the grower’s or other industry associations.

In Australia and New Zealand the standards have been developed by the respective associations which have assumed responsibility for monitoring, certification and compliance. Both the AOA and ONZ charge fees for certification and the use of brandmarks.

The testing for compliance in Australia can be undertaken by the independent New South Wales Government Oil Testing Service of the Wagga Agricultural Institute or by Modern Olives Laboratory Services – until recently a subsidiary of Boundary Bend Limited and now incorporated into Boundary Bend Olives Pty Ltd (a 100% owned subsidiary of Boundary Bend Ltd).

Both the NSW Wagga laboratory and the Modern Olives laboratory have certification from the International Olive Council (IOC). The IOC divides it laboratory certification into: ‘a) public or private laboratories that issue test certificates at the request of third parties; and b) laboratories belonging to olive oil companies that analyse their own oils’. The Modern Olives Laboratory Services is listed in the second category.

Boundary Bend Ltd is the largest producer and marketer of Australian olive oil and it is reasonable to question the independence of the testing function for certification and compliance of competing products granted by the AOA. The data collected through testing has commercial value and it is also reasonable to expect that monitoring and certification should be carried out by an independent third party.

The testing for ONZ OliveMark is undertaken by the independent AsureQuality Ltd, Laboratory Services which does not have IOC certification.

It is in the interests of all those who produce and/or trade in olive oil that any international standard or national standard is developed in consultation with the industry. Thereafter, compliance testing, certification and monitoring should be by an independent institution, preferably governmental, which has no vested or competitive interest in the product.

The USDA standard meets this criterion of independence. It also has the legislative and legal clout to enforce the standards. It is doubtful, considering their status and the cost, whether AOA or ONZ could withstand a legal challenge to their standards or certification – let alone take an active role in prosecuting non-compliance.

Testing for Quality and Purity

Olive oil standards should require chemical and taste testing that give the customers, be they traders or consumers, confidence that the product they are buying is what it is claimed to be.

The international olive industry, led by the IOC, has developed a set of taste (organoleptic) and chemical standards designed to ensure that extra virgin olive oil meets purity and quality criteria. These standards are reviewed regularly and published by the IOC as the ‘Trade Standard Applying to Olive Oils and Olive-pomace Oils’, they are also the standards used by Codex Alimentarius. They provide a legal reference point for international and internal trade in olive oil. The standards have been widely and successfully used in legal actions against producers and traders alleged to have adulterated or contaminated olive oils.

On top of these international standards, nations, regions and organisations have developed their own standards to differentiate their products in the marketplace. These standards are called Designations of Origin and include:

  • Protected Designation of Origen (PDO/POD)

  • Protected Geographical Indication (PGI)

  • Certificate of Specific Character (CSC)

They legitimately assure consumers of the origin of the product and quality criteria that are additional to the basic IOC Trade Standards.

Organisations such as the Italy-based Maestri Oleari have the High Standard which certifies that the extra virgin olive meets production, chemical and nutritional value well above the IOC standards for extra virgin olive oil.

Comparing the Standards in USA, Australia and New Zealand

The table below shows a comparison between the published standards for certification as Australian Extra Virgin Olive Oil by the AOA, the Olives New Zealand OliveMark, US Extra Virgin Olive Oil and the International Olive Council Trade Standard.

Comparison of the Testing Regime for AOA, ONZ, US and IOC extra virgin olive oil standards


Australian Extra Virgin Olive Oil (AOA)

Olives New Zealand

OliveMark (ONZ)

US Extra Virgin

International Olive Council Trade Standard

Organoleptic Characteristics

Yes (by panel of 3 AOA accredited tasters)

Yes (by full IOC accredited NZ panel of 8 tasters)

Yes (by USDA accredited tasters)

Yes (by full IOC accredited panel of 8 tasters)

Free Fatty Acid Content

Yes (0.8%)

Yes (0.5%)

Yes (0.8%)

Yes (0.8%)

Peroxide Value

Yes (20)

Yes (15)

Yes (20)

Yes (20)

Absorbency in Ultra Violet





Fatty Acid Composition





Trans Fatty Acid





Desmethylsterol Composition (% total sterol)





Total sterol content





No confirmatory tests required

No confirmatory tests required

Confirmatory tests if linolenic acid values between1% and 1.5% and/or campesterol values between 4% and 4.5%

All listed tests required for all samples

ECN 42 Triaglycerol content





Stigmastadiene content





Erythrodiol and uvaol content




Wax content





Content of 2-glyceryl monopalmitate





Rancimat test





The USDA standard comes the closest to the requirements of the IOC Trade Standard – the main variation being that 5 of the chemical tests for adulteration/contamination are only required if the olive oil has high campesterol or linolenic acid levels (above the IOC standard).

The Australian Extra Virgin (AOA) Standard does not require any of the tests for contamination/adulteration, nor does the Olives New Zealand Standard. The AOA organoleptic (taste) testing requires that three tasters that have completed basic AOA taste courses certify the oil – Olives New Zealand requires that this be done by the fully IOC accredited New Zealand Panel. Australia has an IOC accredited panel but the AOA does not insist on its use.

By not requiring testing for adulteration/contamination the AOA and ONZ standards could be misleading consumers and run the risk of certifying product that is not extra virgin olive oil. The associations could well be crippled by any ensuing legal action.

Their standards are more akin to ‘Protected Designation of Origin (PDO)’ certification – more about where the product is from and how it is produced, and less about the purity. The ONZ standard does require a free fatty acid level of less than 0.5% a peroxide value of less than 15, an attempt to ensure that the quality of oils carrying certification is higher than the IOC standard for these tests.

It would seem fundamental to introducing a standard in new olive oil producing countries to start with the internationally recognised trade standard and build regional differentiation on top. The integrity of the oil is then assured and the enhanced quality is then marketed.

The USDA has gone most of the way to doing this, and with the independent administration of the standard, has greater integrity than the AOA and ONZ standards. The cost of administration will also be borne by the USDA which has the clout to prosecute those that do not comply.

Despite the push by the AOA to have their standard adopted as the Australian Standard, it is unlikely that the AOA or ONZ standards will be adopted as national standards before they meet four essential criteria:

  • They are based on the IOC Trade Standard

  • They are independently administered by the appropriate government authority

  • The testing is carried out by independent IOC accredited laboratories and tasting panels

  • Membership of the AOA or ONZ is not a requirement for certification

For equity and confidence in trading extra virgin olive oil it is important to have national standards. It is equally important that consumers are assured that the olive oil product they purchase is the genuine article. In addition to this basic independent guarantee of quality and purity, it is an advantage for regions to have additional selling points such as PDO certification. The sooner Australia and New Zealand follow the lead of the USDA in achieving this, the better.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Olive Oil Loses Ground in World Vegetable Oil Production

As olive oil producers and marketers we often become so obsessed with our own product and industry competition that we lose sight of the competition from other vegetable oils.
Olive oil in 2009/10 was ranked 9th in the production and therefore consumption of vegetable oils.
It accounts for 2.16% of world vegetable oil production, down from 2.99% in 2003/4.
Palm oil has overtaken soybean oil as the leading vegetable oil from a production perspective.

The diminishing percentage of the world market attributable to olive oil should provide the incentive for olive oil producers to unite in the promotion of olive oil, especially its health benefits.

Vigilance on quality and potential fraud is essential but the almost weekly worldwide publicity given to court proceedings and non-compliant olive oils damages the reputation of the industry in all producing countries.

Source of Data: USDA Oil Crops Year Book

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Rain in Spain will Affect World Markets

It rained in Spain during the olive harvest - and it rained and rained. Groves were flooded and producers in the southern olive growing regions report severe disruption to their harvesting. Most of the olive oil produced in Spain, which produces almost 50% of the world supply, comes from these southern regions

Reports abound of late harvesting and a substantial tonnage being collected off the ground, destined to produce lampante olive oil and bound for the refineries. Analysts predict a massive increase in the refined olive oil supply as a result, and a shortage of high quality extra virgin olive oil. This shortage may be alleviated by higher than usual carryover stocks from the 2008/2009 season which have been stored with government assistance.

The expected affect on the market worldwide is a decrease in price of the refined 'extra light' and 'pure' olive oils. The shortage of extra virgin olive oil will probably put upward pressure on the price of this category. This will be countered by supplies of cheap refined oils filling supermarket shelves encouraging shoppers to switch from the more expensive extra virgin olive oils.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

FDA Determines Olive Oil Product is Unapproved New Drug

There is an adage that goes ‘be careful what you wish for’. I am sure we have all experienced mentally wishing for something and finding the wish granted in some form far from the one we hoped for.

There has been a push by local olive oil producers in Australia and the USA to ensure that olive oil products are true to label and meet the requirements of international quality classifications and local labelling laws. The ‘wish’ is obviously to remove non-compliant products. The impact in Australia has been to discredit some imported brands and provide a platform to promote locally produced olive oils.

The wish for universal compliance has now taken on another dimension with the new determination by the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) that ‘the product ‘Pompeian Imported Extra Light Olive Oil’ is promoted for conditions that cause the product to be a drug under Section………(of the Act). The therapeutic claims on your website establish that the product is a drug because it is intended for use in the cure, mitigation, treatment, or prevention of disease. The marketing of this product with these claims violates the Act’.

The warning letter carrying the determination is available at

A quick search of the websites of some of the Australian produced supermarket brands and the Australian Extra Virgin Brand shows that similar health claims observed on the Pompeian website are on these websites.

To quote further the FDA Warning Letter:
‘Examples of some of the claims observed on your website include:
On a web page entitled "Healthy Living," subtitled "Benefits of Olive Oil- Heart Healthy and More":
• "Olive Oil is a major component of the Mediterranean diet, which protects the heart, may lower inflammation and coagulation, and may reduce mortality in the elderly."
• "HEART HEALTHY: Helps to lower the LDL (bad) cholesterol and to protect or raise the HDL (good cholesterol) - especially when substituted for saturated fat. Olive oil is the richest source of beneficial monounsaturated fat and is low in harmful saturated fat."
• "Protects against a variety of cancers, especially when consumed as extra virgin olive oil. Olive oil is rich in antioxidants, which have cancer fighting properties."
• "May increase insulin sensitivity in people prone to diabetes as compared to saturated fat, which increases insulin resistance."
• "Protects against thrombogenesis (blood clots) through the reduction of several plasma clotting factor levels."

The FDA determined that ‘Your "Pompeian Imported Extra Light Olive Oil" product is offered for conditions that are not amenable to self-diagnosis and treatment by individuals who are not medical practitioners; therefore, adequate directions for use cannot be written so that a layperson can use this drug safely for its intended purposes.’

The implications are that any of these Australian brands exported to the USA could be deemed ‘unapproved new drugs’ and will be required to take immediate action to correct any violation. This could also apply to locally produced olive oils in the USA
that make health claims either on the label or on the website that is advertised on the label.

Effectively the FDA have stated that if a product has a website address on the label, any claims on the website are an extension of the label. All the Australian supermarket brands checked have on the back label the website address where the health claims are made.

There would appear to be two options for corrective action. Either remove the health claims or apply for approval of the product as a new drug.

The former would severely compromise one of the major marketing pushes of olive oil – its health attributes. The latter would add an extraordinary dimension to the sale of olive oil in the USA – as a drug.

As the adage so wisely says – ‘be careful what you wish for’. When the can of worms of compliance is opened worldwide – the quest for elimination of non-compliant olive oils can have unexpected consequences.

‘Extra Light’ Misbranded

The FDA also determined that the product ‘Pompeian Imported Extra Light Olive Oil’ does not comply with regulation covering the use of the words ‘light’ and ‘lite’ to describe a food.

To use these terms the product must have 50% of the fat content of the reference food (olive oil). Generally ‘extra light olive oil’ is refined olive oil and the descriptor relates to its colour and flavour. To remedy this breach of labelling regulations the label is required to have words such as ‘flavour’ or ‘colour’ next to the word ‘light’.

Review of Food Labelling in Australia and New Zealand

This should be borne in mind when the olive industries in both Australia and New Zealand make submissions in response to the recently released ‘Issues Consultation Paper on the Review of Food Labelling’.

Some of the 39 questions asked in the Paper are:
- In what way can food labelling be used to support health promotion initiatives?
- To what extent should health claims that can be objectively supported by evidence be permitted? and
- Is there a need to establish agreed definitions of terms such as ‘natural’, ‘lite’, ‘organic’, ‘free range’, ‘virgin’ (as regards olive oil), ‘kosher’ or ‘halal’. If so, should these definitions be included in the Food Standards Code?

Many other questions in the issues paper are also relevant to the olive industry.

The review is likely to bring to a head the vexed question to be addressed by the New Zealand and Australian industries as to whether to allow olive oils to be classified as extra virgin when they do not comply with the chemical criteria of the International Olive Council Trade Standard for Olive Oil (IOC Trade Standard). It would seem obvious that for international trade there should be one rigorous standard that is acceptable to all trading partners, is backed by an internationally accredited testing regime, does not disadvantage one producer in favour of another and presents the truth to consumers.

The closing date for written and online submissions is 14 May 2010. Public forums will also be held in Australia and New Zealand. The schedule and the Issues Consultation Paper is available at

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Government Grants Should Benefit the Entire Olive Industry

The Federal Government has been generous in its assistance to the Australian Olive industry through its grants to promote Australian extra virgin olive oil and table olives. In June 2009 it granted a further $200,000 to this cause.

As an Australian producer one can only applaud this, but it seems only the signatories to the Australian Olive Association (AOA) Code of Practice and licencees of the associated brandmark will be the beneficiaries.

A media release from the AOA on 10 June 2009 stated that ‘the funding would be used to develop a campaign to develop a high profile marketing campaign to promote Australian extra virgin olive oil and table olives’. It added that ‘The campaign will also focus on raising trade and consumer awareness of the AOA’s recently introduced Code of Practice’.

8% of Producers have Signed Code

According to the AOA website there are currently 70 signatories to the Code of Practice, only 8% of the estimated 859 producers in Australia (Australian and New Zealand Olive Industry Directory 2010).

In Victoria with 193 producers registered in the ‘Australian and New Zealand Olive Industry Directory 2010’, 22 (11%) are current signatories of the Code of Practice, in New South Wales 16 have signed (8.6%) and South Australia 11 (9%). These low percentages do not reflect claims by State Associations that the majority of producers are signing up to the Code.

The ABC Landline programme on 21 February 2010 reported that ‘three-quarters (of Australian producers) already have (signed the AOA Code of Practice)’. This would mean that there should be approximately 650 signatories on the AOA website.

The AOA publicity surrounding the Code of Practice and Australian Extra Virgin Brand would give the impression that it is the official Australian Standard. It is not. In its own Code of Practice documents covering quality and labelling guidelines there is the statement ‘There is currently no legal Australian standard for the assessment and description of olive oil…………. The AOA currently recommends the quality and type of olive oil be based on IOOC (now International Olive Council IOC) standards such as extra virgin olive oil’. However, it does not adopt the IOC standards testing regime as the basis for certification as extra virgin olive oil.

In comments reported in The Weekly Times on October 21 2009, the AOA President stated ‘We would like the Australian standard to be law ………that would make life easier for the (the ACCC)’. There is no Australian standard and the one referred to must be the AOA Code of Practice. It would not make it easier for the Australian Competition and Consumer Council (ACCC) as this Code has no testing requirements for adulteration. It would make it easier for the AOA as to comply with their Code a licencee has to be a member.

ACCC sets precedent on Australian Standard

The precedent recently created by the ACCC in imposing court enforceable conditions on the sale of three imported brands that they meet IOC standards supports this view that the IOC standard is more than the de facto standard for olive oil on sale in Australia. These conditions in one instance included the requirements:
• Before supplying a batch of edible oil in Australia labelled ‘olive oil’, ‘virgin olive oil’ or ‘extra virgin olive oil’, require the producer or its supplier of the edible oil to provide a certificate of analysis, or equivalent document, that demonstrates compliance of a sample from the applicable batch with the International Olive Council’s trade standard applying to olive oils and olive-pomace oils (IOC standard)
or other equivalent or recognised standard.
• Commission a National Association of Testing Authorities (NATA) - or IOC-accredited laboratory within Australia to test a sample from the applicable batch against the IOC standard or other equivalent or recognised standard.

The only equivalent or recognised international standards are those defined in the Codex Alimentarius and the European Union trade standards. The AOA Code of Practice testing standards do not have any requirement for the tests relating to contamination or adulteration of olive oil and would not therefore be an equivalent standard.

For this reason, and the fact that to have extra virgin olive oil certified under the AOA brand the licencee has to be a member of the AOA, is argued that the AOA is using government money to promote its brand and licencees and not the entire industry.

Cash Cow or Consumer Conscience?

This raises the question as to whether the AOA is developing the self-proclaimed Australian Standard as a cash cow to provide funds for the activities of the association or as a genuine effort to ensure quality product is retailed to consumers.

This exclusivity also poses a problem for supermarkets which the AOA claims has adopted its code of practice as a requirement for olive oils. This may well mean that by excluding Australian olive oils which do not have the AOA certification, but meet the international standards used by the ACCC in its determinations, the supermarkets may be in breach of competition guidelines.

The AOA has another problem which it has created for itself by its pursuit of non-compliant olive oils. It is common knowledge that the barnea variety planted in large numbers by Timbercorp, and others, produces olive oil which does not meet the IOC standards for sterol composition. It is understood that some supermarkets have been approached to vary their standards to allow a higher than IOC standard level of the sterol campesterol, used as an indicator for adulteration with vegetable oils.

Acceding to this request would not only open the market up to non-compliant oils and possible increases in adulteration, but also begs the question as to whether the standards will be varied for suppliers who have large quantities of ‘extra virgin’ olive oil that does not comply with other specifications of the standards. If these other variations are not acceded to, it can be argued that supermarkets will be favouring one brand by making an exception for campesterol.

Open the Code of Practice to all Australian Producers and Retailers

The AOA needs to follow the lead of New Zealand and make two changes to its Code of Practice and Australian Extra Virgin Brand. The first is to open the Code of Practice up to all producers and retailers – this can be done by charging non-members the equivalent of AOA annual membership on top of the licensing fees, as is done by Olives New Zealand (ONZ).

The second is to make compliance with the IOC standard the basic requirement for certification as Australian Extra Virgin, with other additional quality testing as required. Olives New Zealand makes the reference to IOC standards in their guidelines: ‘To qualify for certification olive oil must meet standards required by Olives New Zealand based on chemical and sensory criteria set by the International Olive Council’. However, to date ONZ have apparently only enforced the sensory and selected quality requirements for their ‘Red Dot’ Certification seal.

Government Grants should Benefit Entire Industry

By adopting these two approaches, the AOA will fulfil its claim of promoting Australian extra virgin and ensuring the highest quality product for consumers. It will be up to producers whether they join the AOA for certification or pay the extra fee charged to non-members.

The Federal Government grants would then visibly be benefitting the entire industry, not just the members of the AOA.

Australian Standard should exceed The International Standards

It will also mean that the Australian Standard, when developed, will meet and exceed international standards and it will be up to the producers of non-compliant oils to dispose of them within the accepted framework. Any other approach will be bending the rules in favour of particular enterprises that have planted varieties, or adopted management practices, which produce non-compliant oils.

For olive oils that have been licensed to use the ONZ QualityMark Seal go to

For those that have signed up to the AOA Code of Practice got to,com_comprofiler/task,usersList/listid,2/Itemid,61/

Simon Field

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Local Olive Oils Make Market Inroads

Australia and New Zealand are entering the second decade of the new tide of olive oil production and it is a good time to assess how they are faring.

Market penetration

In the mid-nineties both countries imported most of their olive oil requirements with only a few boutique local brands available at the high-end foodstores.

Now, there are around eight Australian brands on the shelves of the main supermarkets. In New Zealand there about four local brands on the main shelves with more in the boutique sections of the large supermarkets. Everywhere there are local brands being sold at farmers’ markets, in delicatessens and upmarket food stores. Many restaurants use regional extra virgin olive oils (EVOO) both on the table and as an ingredient.

These inroads into the markets hitherto dominated by imports from Italy, Spain and Greece can be quantified by looking at the trends in olive oil consumption in Australia since 1997. While New Zealand statistics have not been analysed, observation suggests that the trends are similar to the Australian market.

Consumption falls 22% in last three years

The total olive oil consumed in Australia, calculated by adding local production and imports, then subtracting exports, has risen steadily from 17,786 tonnes in 1997/98 to 37,000 tonnes in the 2008/2009 financial year. Growth was 66% from 1997 to 2001 and since then has slowed to 23% over the last 8 years, or about 6% growth a year. Consumption peaked in 2006/2007 at 47,500 tonnes (IOC data), and has fallen from there to 37,000 tonnes last financial year. This represents a fall of 22% over the last 3 years.

Extra Virgin consumption increases 35%

While this growth over the last decade is significant, the growth in consumption of virgin olive oil is even more impressive. In 1997/98, 76% of the olive oil consumed in Australia was refined, in 2008/09, this has dropped to 41%. The percentage of olive oil consumed that is virgin – most of which is extra virgin – has increased from 24% in 1997/98 to 59% in 2008/2009. Add to this the growth in olive oil consumption overall, the increase in EVOO consumption has gone from 4,239 tonnes to an estimated 21,000 tonnes during the period being considered.

This is real evidence of the success of the Australian olive oil industry in replacing imports and converting consumers to the use of extra virgin olive oil in preference to the ‘extra light’ and ‘pure olive oils’.

The factors affecting the consumption of olive oil in Australia are complex and include local activities over which producers and retailers have control, and international market fluctuations and trends over which they have little control.

Reasons for increased consumption

It is no coincidence that the world’s highest consumers of olive oil are the countries in which olive oil is produced. This is because the cuisine is built around this healthy ingredient and it is part of the culture. This leads to promotion of olive oil at the local level and from here the word spreads through local markets, produce shops and restaurants. Then converted consumers start purchasing the cheaper local olive oils in the supermarkets. So the first credit must go to the producers who market and sell their products locally with passion.

However, this push is limited in the volume it can dispose of at the relatively high prices expected at the early stage in the industry. The real volumes start to move when the price drops and reaches parity with the price of competing vegetable oils or imported stocks. This has happened in Australia where the prices of many brands of local oil compete with imports. And it is starting to happen in New Zealand with three or four brands.

Again it is the producers who deserve the credit for streamlining the supply-chain and reducing input costs. No promotion campaign would have successfully increased sales to the current level if the product was not affordable.

Overlay the international and national promotion of the increased health benefits of extra virgin olive oils, the taste campaigns and the ‘outing’ of imperfect imported products and one gets the successful campaign that the Australian and New Zealand olive producers have conducted.

However, the evidence of substantial reduction in consumption over the last three years is a concern.

Capturing the other half

Gaining the first 50% of the market is the easiest, getting the rest is harder work. The industry must approach this in two ways: increase overall consumption; and replace more imports. Many will see the increase in the percentage of extra virgin olive consumed as a third push – but this is not necessarily a good tactic as there is demand for refined oils and refining disposes of oil that does not make the virgin classification.

Some of the outside influences that will now limit the growth of the industry are; promotion of cheaper cooking oils, increasing overseas production, and exchange rates.

Olive oil is ranked ninth in the world table of production (USDA 2008), and therefore consumption, of the major commodity vegetable oils. This is mainly due to price and any increase in the price of olive oil will decrease consumption. In Australia, canola is a major oilseed crop and the health benefits of high oleic acid canola oil is being promoted as similar to those of olive oil. It is considerably cheaper on supermarket shelves.

The impact of price of olive oil may be one of the reasons that consumption has declined from 2007/8 to 2008/09 due to the global financial crisis and consequent reduced disposable income.

The level of overseas production of olive oil in general, and specifically extra virgin olive oil, will have a dual impact on sales of Australian and New Zealand olive oils.

First, the world trend to greater production of extra virgin olive oil over the refined oil will continue to reduce the price.

Second, increased world production from trees planted well before the global financial crisis affected consumer spending will also tend to oversupply and lower prices. In Spain we are already seeing significant reduction in exports, and high levels of storage at a time when the predictions are for an increase in production over last year. With the high value of the Australian and New Zealand dollar favouring imports and working against exports, an assault from European Union exporters on the lost market share can be expected.

Some current marketing tactics are short term

The campaign in Australia to expose impure extra virgin olive oil imports has received wide acclaim amongst producers. So much so that the publicity implies that all imported olive oils are imperfect.

While ensuring consumers are getting what they paid for is commendable, the publicity generated is not productive for the following reasons. It is bad marketing to publicly talk down a product – in this case the commodity olive oil - as it tarnishes the reputation of the product in general. Consumers generally do not read beyond the headline unless they have a specific interest and may switch to alternatives such as canola oil.

The constant monitoring for fraud will lift the quality of imports so a more competitive quality product will be on the shelves. It may also lift the price of imports, prompting local producers to lift prices and consequently lose customers to cheaper vegetable oils.

It may also bring a response in the form of restrictive imposts and similar campaigns targeting Australian and New Zealand olive oils from countries which are potential markets, such as Italy. The publicity around the testing and consequent action by the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission on fraudulent oils has generally ignored the reports that one in four Australian brands tested by Modern Olives at the same time failed to meet IOC specifications.

The campaign is a short term tactic as its success will mean that only quality oils are imported, ending the effectiveness of the campaign in discrediting imported olive oils as a ploy to replace them.

The ‘Fresher Tastes Better’ campaign run by the Australian Olive Association to promote its brand is also a short term tactic. Australian olive oils are only fresher than imports for six months of the year – before the Northern Hemisphere harvest comes in. The importers of these fresher oils can piggy-back on the Australian campaign by marketing the incoming oil as more recently harvested and fresher. It also gives a free marketing kick to other Southern Hemisphere producing countries, such as Argentina and South Africa, seeking to sell their new season oils in Australia.

Exchange rates are also important in the affect on the price of imports. The Australian dollar dipped significantly from September to December in 2008, from consistent highs through 2007 (Reserve Bank of Australia data). This almost certainly contributed to the highest consumption recorded in Australia in 2006/2007 and the fall away in the subsequent two years as the cost of importing increased. The Australian dollar is now back to the levels of 2007 and we can expect cheaper imports and downward pressure on the price and consumption of Australian and New Zealand olive oil.

New approaches needed

The substantial inroads the Australian and New Zealand olive industries have made into markets dominated by imports are impressive. The producers of the local oils deserve the credit for this as their passion and influence has spread the word like ripples from multiple stones tossed in a pond.

The slowing of growth in consumption, potential worldwide oversupply and unfavourable exchange rates are going to make the next increment more difficult.

New approaches are needed to increase the consumption of olive oil, whether imported or not, over competing vegetable oils.

The industry should be working towards providing the consumers with better quality at lower prices – price being the ultimate determinant of purchase.

A stronger campaign to promote the health benefits of extra virgin olive oil produced in Australia and New Zealand should give ascendancy over competing oils, especially with our aging population. This will need to be supported by research showing that local oils have greater health benefits than imported oils.

In the future, Australia especially, and New Zealand to a smaller extent, will need to export increasing amounts of olive oil. It is therefore important to consider the reaction of potential customers to campaigns which denigrate all imported oils without distinction or by association.

Is Extra Virgin Olive Oil becoming too precious?

Finally, producers need to consider whether they are giving the impression to consumers that their product is so special that it is to be used sparingly.

An example of this approach of extra virgin olive oil being promoted as too special for general cooking was found on the back label of an Australian brand in a supermarket. Besides describing the oil as ‘viscious’ (presumably very robust!), the label stated ‘This is a table oil too good for cooking – but if you must………’

During a recent visit by the author to a New Zealand farmers market, this approach to selling extra virgin olive oil was also evident. No doubt the relatively high price is the underlying reason for this.

To increase consumption of Australian and New Zealand olive oil we must encourage consumers to use extra virgin olive oil for all cooking – as a dressing, ingredient and cooking medium. It is up to us producers to make sure that it is affordable to do this.