California’s Olive Oil Revolution

In 1976 the wine industry changed forever when a vintage from California was judged superior to its European counterparts. The same thing might be about to happen to olive oil. Olive oil started to become popular in the U.S. in the late 1980s and 1990s as praise grew for the Mediterranean diet, found to potentially reduce the risk of numerous ailments, such as cancer, osteoporosis, Alzheimer’s, heart disease, high blood pressure, and high cholesterol. Because there was almost no olive oil production in the United States, virtually all of the supply to meet the growing demand was imported. By 2015, even with the growth in domestic production, imports hit 315,000 tonnes.

Since the 1980’s there, are now close to 70 different olive oil varieties being cultivated in California. Many small producers make “Tuscan blends” which refers to the most common Tuscan varieties: Frantoio, Leccino, Moraiolo, Olivastra, and Pendolino. Founded in 1998, California Olive Ranch was the first company to take American olive oil to a whole new level. While olives have grown in California for hundreds of years, California Olive Ranch have pioneered new ways of cultivating and harvesting olives in order to make our extra virgin olive oil premium and affordable. California Olive Ranch, a privately held company, estimates it accounted for 65 percent of the olive oil produced in the U.S. and selling nearly $30 million of its olive oil in 2015.

Italy exports billions of dollars’ worth of olive oil, including hundreds of millions to the U.S., the world’s third-largest olive oil market, with $2 billion in sales. Many of the best-selling oils, legally labeled “imported from Italy” or “packed in Italy,” with images of the country’s flag or hearty peasants, are made from olives grown in Greece, Spain, or Tunisia and then shipped to Italy for processing. What many producers across Italy (as well as Spain) are doing is importing large quantities of olives and olive oils from across Southern Europe and North Africa and processing, refining, and labeling it as “Italian” (or “Spanish”), despite their more complex origins. Surprisingly, this practice is actually legal, though the source of the underlying commodity is supposed to be specified on the label.

In addition to issues with outright fraud, international quality standards on extra virgin olive oil (EVOO)—i.e. cold-pressed, with no additives and minimal acidity—are not well enforced, and there have been numerous incidences of lower-quality vegetable oil or heat-treated olive oil labeled and sold as “extra virgin.” A study published by the University of California, Davis’s Olive Center found that 69 percent of a selection of imported EVOOs found in California supermarkets (as well as 10 percent of Californian EVOOs) didn’t meet standards necessary to be classified as “virgin” or “extra virgin” compared to the California-produced oils, of which only 10 percent failed to meet their respective quality criteria.

California producers are hoping to provide a solution to the fraud. The state’s olive oil industry has positioned itself as an underdog producer of high-quality, rigorously checked oil in the face of European mega producers with questionable track records and lax certification. Its main trade body, the California Olive Oil Council (COOC) has even set its certification standards stricter than international standards set by the IOC—mandating a maximum of 0.5 free acidity content compared with the IOC’s 0.8 percent.