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