Katherine Rich: Olive oil – in defence of quality

olive oilThe olive oil producing countries of the Mediterranean guard their reputations very jealously. Probably about as jealously as New Zealand guards its dairying reputation. To an olive oil producer inSpain, Italy, or Greece, the subject of extra virgin olive oil and how it is produced is as important as the quality of milk powder or cheese is to Fonterra.

The stringent production methods and quality controls the large corporate oil producers have developed down the generations is nothing short of obsessive. It has to be because, for many regions in those countries, olive oil is the lifeblood of their economies. Without it they don’t survive. Like primary production in New Zealand.

Over the past few years the Food & Grocery Council has been involved on behalf of members in defending unwarranted attacks on the standard of olive oil imported from the Mediterranean.

Recently, Fair Go did a report on olive oil, and sent samples of imported and locally produced oils to an Australian lab for chemical testing and to a sensory (tasting) panel in New Zealand. But neither of them were accredited by the International Olive Council (IOC) to carry out the official tests against the international standard for olive oil. 

Not surprisingly, these unofficial tests, which did not follow the IOC protocol, returned the classic “local great, imports bad” result. Though the samples on the whole passed all the chemical tests, the negative results on sensory testing was probably because local tasters tend to identify local New Zealand oils more readily.  This is not a criticism, but there is a tendency for local industries to champion their own styles, whatever the country might be.

This is why international testing standards are so important – so regional biases and preferences can be removed and all oils can be tested fairly against an internationally agreed standard. The IOC standard, which governs the trade in olive oil and sets quality standards designed to ensure authenticity and quality by testing before, during, and after production, includes 20 chemical and physical tests. If a batch does not comply, it cannot be exported. 

The misleading results of Fair Go’s tests were used to cast aspersions on the quality Spanish, Greek, and Italian oils imported to New Zealand by some of our most respected local companies – family companies which have imported oil from the same suppliers for generations. Somewhat ironically, these are the same companies which introduced Kiwis to olive oil decades ago, before our local industry was even a pipedream.

Local olive oil politics can sometimes make Parliament look like a cakewalk, but it’s important to check a few facts. Though various media have tried to create the impression there is a national “scandal” regarding olive oil quality, the remarkable thing is that our members cannot recall any complaints about their products, either to them or to regulatory bodies, and nor has their oil ever failed a chemical test. 

New Zealand companies such as James Crisp and William Aitken & Co are proud of what they do and they take their reputations very seriously. They proudly stand behind the quality of their oils and the supply chains that deliver them to Kiwi shoppers.

On the uneven playing field of Fair Go’s tests, the imported oils were never going to pass sensory tests set against a background of New Zealand oils. Comparing oil grown in different climates and in different styles is not comparing like with like. Imported oil doesn’t pretend to be gourmet oil from boutique producers. It’s mainstream supermarket oil at a great price. Different taste profiles are not a surprise. As with wine, because of regional differences it’s going to taste differently to anything produced locally, and it comes down to personal preference.  An avid red wine drinker might prefer Otago Pinots and dislike Bordeaux, but that doesn’t mean one country’s wine is better or worse – just different.  FGC has members that sell both local and imported oils, but for a fair comparison, like must be set against like, and an internationally agreed standard allows that. Fair Go’s approach was anything but fair.

FGC is not sure what Fair Go were trying to achieve, but giving them the benefit of the doubt they would have believed their testing was going to be objective and done by IOC-accredited labs and tasters. The opposite was true. In the end, they produced results that bagged honest importers.

FGC goes to great lengths to satisfy itself that members’ products are as good as they can be. We champion all companies which play with a straight bat and which know that if you put something on the front of a product then it has to be correct. We believe that is the case here.  As FGC told Fair Go, if shoppers think they’ve bought an oil that’s not right, they can take it back to the supermarket.