Nov 192011

Here is a video from Reuters News Service entitled: “Spain’s olive industry looks overseas to combat crisis”.

Spanish olive oil producer Acesur is the featured company interviewed to illustrate the problems faced by Spain’s olive industry. Growth for Acesur is coming from exports since the domestic market is depressed by the euro zone crisis. Spain’s fortunes may be determined abroad.

May the sun shine through your branches.

Apr 212011

The IOC  I am writing about is not the International Olympic Committee but the International Olive Council, which until recently was known as the International Olive Oil Council. Now try to keep all this straight – whew. The IOC is an organization located in Madrid, Spain that represents the interests of  forty-three member countries (make sure when you go to the link you also select the link for European Union to see the rest of the members).

It’s mission statement reads:

“The International Olive Council is the world’s only international intergovernmental organisation in the field of olive oil and table olives. It was set up in Madrid, Spain, in 1959, (Note: It was actually started in 1956) under the auspices of the United Nations. It used to be known as the International Olive Oil Council or IOOC until 2006, when its name was changed. The Council is a decisive player in contributing to the sustainable and responsible development of olive growing and it serves as a world forum for discussing policymaking issues and tackling present and future challenges. It does so by:

  • Encouraging international technical cooperation on research and development projects, training and the transfer of technology.
  • Encouraging the expansion of international trade in olive oil and table olives, drawing up and updating product trade standards and improving quality.
  • Enhancing the environmental impact of olive growing and the olive industry.
  • Promoting world consumption of olive oil and table olives through innovative campaigns and action plans.
  • Supplying clear, accurate information and statistics on the world olive and olive oil market.
  • Enabling government representatives and experts to meet regularly to discuss problems and concerns and to fix priorities for IOC action.
  • Working in close partnership with the private sector.”

In my article, Trials and Tribulations of California Olive Oil, I told the story of how California developed a thriving olive oil industry that was crushed by the major olive oil countries in Europe. It was crushed through protection schemes and enormous subsidies to the olive oil producers around the Mediterranean. It was within ten years after the end of WWII that the International Olive Oil Council was founded by France, Portugal, Italy, and Spain to protect their interests. They were then joined by The United Kingdom, Greece, and Belgium.

Even though the IOC mission statement and the information you can read about them on their website makes them appear to be a benevolent protector of all things olive. They are not. They are an organization that operates to protect some, but not all, of their member countries’ olive exports. Just look at the list of members I linked above. Only a handful of countries actually export olive oil, with Spain as the lead exporter in the entire world. Now think about most of the bottles of olive oil you see on your grocery shelf. Most of them say “Product of Italy”. Italy has a deal with the IOC countries to have the other countries send their oil to Italy and then have it mixed and/or bottled there and shipped on, with the worst oil sent to the United States. So much for the IOC’s fantastic standards.

Thanks to California, in 2005, on behalf of the U.S. consumer, they filed suit against Italy to place the country or countries of origin on the label of oil. California won, but frankly it isn’t enough. The IOC has deliberately blocked any action on making sure that consumers, whether U.S. or other, get real extra virgin olive oil.

Just this week, the California Olive Oil Council released its Report of Extra-Virgin Olive Oil Sold in California and it is damning. Let me just give you one of the findings in the Report:

“Of the five top-selling imported “extra virgin” olive oil brands in the United States, 73 percent of the samples failed the IOC sensory standards for extra virgin olive oils analyzed by two IOC-accredited sensory panels. The failure rate ranged from a high of 94 percent to a low of 56 percent depending on the brand and the panel.  None of the Australian and California samples failed both sensory panels, while 11 percent of the top-selling premium Italian brand samples failed the two panels. Sensory defects are indicators that these samples are oxidized, of poor quality, and/or adulterated with cheaper refined oils.”

With the support of the IOC, American consumers are being duped into paying inflated prices for inferior extra virgin and other olive oils. And all of this again after a huge world-wide adulteration ring operating under the noses of and I’m sure in cahoots with some of the IOC members was busted in 2007 and 2008. The U.S. made the first move to destroy the ring before the IOC members would even budge.

Now here’s the worst of it and what I call the “impending black cloud”. The Spanish Ambassador to the United States is lobbying Congress and the White House very, very, very hard to get the U.S. to join the IOC. This will be a death blow to the developing U.S. olive industry and will keep American consumers from ever having the chance to actually get what they paid for – forget buying locally grown, pure evoo.

So again, why is California helping Georgia with it’s olive industry? First of all because the east coast of the U.S. is key to sustaining a U.S. olive oil and table olive industry. The majority of the current and future olive oil market is the entire east coast. And secondly because Georgia is the only state that has any political clout. Georgia’s olive industry was started by and is being built by currently-elected and previously-serving politicians from both political parties in response to the Georgia’s need to find drought-resistant crops to replace crops with declining yields.

Now you have the whole story.

May the sun shine through your branches.

Apr 182011

This next group of players in the impending international olive oil drama are the Mediterranean basin countries who collectively make up most of the world’s olive oil imports. These countries are under their own black cloud but are the main players in the black cloud that is hanging over the fledgling U.S. olive oil industry.

It’s hard for any of us to have missed all the recent drama in Europe, North Africa and the Middle East: economies are collapsing; revolutions and civil unrest are spreading; and the traditional European Union subsidization of olive oil is coming to an end. In the case of ending subsidizations, I’ll believe it when I see it.

Mediterranean basin countries Spain, Italy, Greece, Tunisia, Turkey, Syria, Morocco, and Portugal (in that order) produce about 90% of the world’s olive oil. Those countries, which are members of the European Union (EU), have reaped the benefits of government subsidization that has kept their olive oil prices artificially high. The EU is broke and subsidies, no matter how lucrative for some of it’s members, are highly unpopular throughout the rest of the EU.

The other, non-EU countries, some of which are facing civil unrest, have had their olive oil production and prices propped up by wealthy individuals and powerful families. Some of those families are suffering a downturn in fortune as a result of the unrest, but there are others benefiting. A great example of this is the appointment of Habib Essid, who was Executive Director and Deputy Director at the International Olive Council (IOC) from 2004 to 2010. Essid was just appointed to the Cabinet-level position of Minister of Interior for the Government of Tunisia. Tunisia is the largest non-European Mediterranean olive oil producer and notorious for exporting inferior olive oil.

I used to live in Tunisia, which is a beautiful country, but their olive oil industry is run by about five families who aren’t too interested in quality as much as quantity. There is an enormous difference in the socio-economic levels between Tunisian country and city folk. In the country, the wealth is super concentrated in the vaults of the powerful olive oil families. There is little desire by these families to see things change. In other words, they want a lot of money for their oil, they want to maintain their super-cheap labor force,  and they don’t care that their virgin oils don’t actually meet the standards of the IOC of which they are in positions of control. And like the rest of the countries who belong to the IOC they don’t care that the U.S. consumer has been paying a high price for inferior olive oil.

So, as a result of ongoing hard times for the member countries of the International Olive Council, the IOC countries have banded together to put a halt to the quickly expanding U.S. olive oil market. The IOC countries have a plan which they are attempting to implement, right now, in Washington, D.C. So why is California helping other states develop their olive oil industries? Because they need allies to fight the IOC. And why has California been extra attentive to Georgia? Because Georgia has something no other state has – political clout.

In the next article I will explain what the IOC is doing in Washington and what makes Georgia special to the developing U.S. olive oil industry.

May the sun shine through your branches.

Apr 162011

Let me present player number one in the latest international olive oil drama – California, please take a bow.

The California story I want to tell does not start way back in history with Spanish monks planting olive trees at the missions they established in California. It starts just before World War II when California was first positioned to become an international olive oil powerhouse. It is a story of opportunity and intrigue and reminds me a lot of the new television series, The Borgias, without any of the love interest stuff.

Up until WWII the California olive industry was ticking along. The markets for table olives and olive oil swung back and forth with the table olive market the primary olive market in California before the war. Why? Because the growers made more money for good looking olives that could be cured and canned.

During WWII olive groves around the Mediterranean took a beating. Many of the trees were salvageable but most of the men and women who had, in peacetime, cared for the now war-devastated olive groves found themselves a bit busy doing those things one does when war comes to visit.

California had an opportunity to reestablish their olive oil industry, which had collapsed at the end of the 19th century, and they did. California ramped up olive oil production and business flourished. The “mob” who has notoriously been involved in the Mediterranean olive oil industry bought some of the California olive groves and joined Californians in supplying olive oil to the rest of the world. Business was good.

Then the war ended and Mediterranean folks started working their farms again, free from the “feed my troops” demands of Hitler and Mussolini. Olive trees were pruned back and in a few years the trees were back in production. World olive oil production shifted back to the Mediterranean, the mob moved on, and many California olive oil producing farms went belly up. Those that survived went back to canning (metal was still scarce after the war) and tried to hang on.

Let’s move forward in time several decades to the beginning of the 21st century. The table olive market is close to saturation, and the British Medical Journal published the Mediterranean Diet study done by the University of Florence, Italy, and interest in olive oil as a means of achieving good health exploded. California growers took notice. Spanish olive growers had started 17 years before to trellis and decrease the size of olive trees for easier picking (farm labor is expensive). The newly patented olive tree varieties, called super high density, were sent to the USDA for quarantine and in the early 21st century were planted in greatest quantity in California, spreading to Texas, Georgia, and Florida. The U.S., with California in the lead, is now positioned to be a big player in the world olive oil market.

So when I asked myself “why are so many Californians “graciously” helping Georgians and Floridans develop as potential competitors for the still small U.S. olive oil market?” It’s because they cannot develop a quality olive oil industry alone. They need the help of other states to overcome a similar situation to the one they faced during and at the end of WWII. They are getting ready and the rest of the U.S. should help.

My next article will be about the collapsing European, Middle Eastern and North African economies and how it is affecting the olive oil industry.

May the sun shine through your branches.


Apr 142011

In my last article I promised you I would write a series of reports on the silver linings and black clouds in the growing U.S. olive industry. Here is part of the silver lining, some of the players, and a little about the black clouds.

The silver lining in this story is that now from east coast to west coast U.S. growers, producers, and academics are working very hard to make sure we can buy locally grown and American-made olive oils that actually meet the USDA’s voluntary standards (see my article Olive Oil Standards Get a Face Lift). California olive growers and olive oil producers are helping new growers, new and  future olive oil producers in other states (Arizona, Florida, Georgia, and Texas) get off the ground so U.S. consumers get the quality product we demand and are expecting when we buy a bottle labeled Extra Virgin Olive Oil (evoo).

The silver lining is extra shiny for the developing United States olive industry, especially when it comes to growing and producing “good” evoo. Health benefits research has made Americans aware that evoo is good and good for us. So why would I be redundant and emphasize “good”? It’s because much of the olive oil imported into the U.S. and labeled as Extra Virgin or Virgin does not even come close to meeting the standards for Virgin Olive Oils.

For as long as olive oil has been imported into the U.S., this country has been treated like a dumping ground for Virgin Oils that have been mixed with lower quality oils, such as: rapeseed oil; hazelnut oil; olive oils that are not fit for human consumption (the kind that is fit for use only as fuel), and other oils. In addition to adding low-quality oils to evoo, chlorophyll dyes have been added to make the evoo on U.S. grocery shelves look like the evoo it isn’t.

This adulterated oil has none of the healthy anti-oxidants found in true Virgin Olive Oils. In 2008 one of the adulteration “rings” was busted, but there are still other groups out there and they are operating with the tacit approval of some of the main producer countries who are part of the International Olive Council.The European Union, which is a huge consumer of evoo, responded swiftly to the problem of adulterated oils. The U.S., on the other hand, even after the standards overhaul last year, does not have standards strong enough to protect us from international olive oil adulteration “rings”.

The U.S. is still a few years away from large enough evoo production to begin to meet the growing demand for locally-grown, American-made extra virgin olive oil. During these next couple of years it is critical that U.S. growers and producers and the American public band together to stop the international olive oil producing countries, who are threatened by the evolving U.S. olive industry, from killing it and continuing to cheat American olive oil consumers.

California is leading the charge because they have first-hand experience with the international olive producing countries destroying California’s mid-twentieth century olive oil industry and its exports, but more on that in my next article.

Support locally-grown, American-made olive oil. It is our only hope for getting true, “good” evoo.

May the sun shine through your branches.