Imported olive oils are often subsidized and sometimes adulterated and mislabeled as “extra-virgin” because of a lack of standards enforcement. High-quality domestically produced olive oils are unsubsidized, yet they still have to compete on the supermarket shelves with their competitors’ lower prices. Meanwhile, the American public remains largely unaware of these factors as their purchasing power continues to swell globally, with the United States currently being the second-largest importer of olive oil. These are some of the findings detailed in the United States International Trade Commission’s report entitled Olive Oil: Conditions of Competition between U.S. and Major Foreign Supplier Industries.
“The report gives our government a more objective understanding of our industry, and it gives us a platform from which to establish a dialogue about what the next steps are for the American olive oil industry,” says Karen Lee Henry, managing director of the Texas Olive Oil Council and a partner at Texas Olive Ranch, the largest olive oil producer in the state.
According to the report, enforcement doesn’t currently exist for international or USDA standards for extra-virgin olive oil, which may give an incentive to some producers to misrepresent the quality of their product. “Official USDA olive oil standards exist but are merely definitions of grades,” the report states. “Currently, there is no mechanism to enforce these grades, no government agency that collects and tests random samples of oils, and no penalty for noncompliance with the standards. As a result, studies have found that oils purchased by U.S. consumers that are labeled as extra-virgin often do not meet extra-virgin criteria.”
All too often, says Henry, people in the U.S. don’t know the difference between a fresh olive oil with the distinctive flavor profiles of its farm and an older one that may have been adulterated. “Americans did not grow up with a legacy of olive oil production,” she says. “Once they’ve tasted [fresh olive oil], it’s like the entire world changes. It’s like when you went from watching black-and-white TV to color.”
The report also conveys that U.S. producers—those from Texas included—tend to focus on producing high-quality, extra-virgin olive oils that appeal to a small niche of informed consumers. Henry says this kind of market is profitable and growing, but limited. “High-quality, extra-virgin olive oil that’s fresh is only available in very limited circumstances…and there’s a robust market for that in Texas,” she says. “But if you tried to sell your olive oil at the price you can get for it as an artisanal producer on the shelf at any kind of regular grocery store, you’re competing directly with an imported olive oil, and most customers will look at that and not see any significant difference, and therefore make a decision based on price.”
Jack Dougherty, owner of First Texas Olive Oil Company, which sells its olive oils exclusively at its Bella Vista Ranch in Wimberley, is not convinced that more regulation would be beneficial, or that labeling rules need to be changed. “We have to develop consumer awareness,” he says. “Instead of fighting over who is making the money and who is getting what, we should be focused on educating the consumer about the benefits of good olive oil…explain to the world how good olive oil is and they will beat a path to your door.” —Nicole Lessin