OPINION — Everyone has to eat. Across all borders and cultures, we all rely on food. But this universal truth makes consumers vulnerable to unscrupulous food industry players who engage in unethical, if not illegal, labeling practices.
In the U.S., the federal government has developed hundreds of enforceable quality standards to protect consumers from contaminated products by requiring accurate ingredients lists and cracking down on false health claims. From meat to macaroni and canned prunes to canned tuna, consumers are protected against fraud in these categories because the government has stepped into the void.
But that’s not true for all food products, even ubiquitous ones like olive oil.
It’s been five years since the National Consumers League, the nation’s oldest consumer organization, pulled 11 bottles of extra virgin olive oil off the shelves of four major grocery chains in Washington, D.C., and sent the contents for testing. The results were troubling. Despite their labeling, the lab found six of them failed to meet international quality standards necessary to be considered extra virgin.
Five years later, little has changed. The time is past due for federal regulators to take action.
Earlier this month, a coalition of U.S. olive growers and Deoleo, the world’s leading olive oil producer, formally petitioned the Food and Drug Administration to adopt “science-based, enforceable standards” for the various grades of olive oil. They also recommend the most modern testing methods to accurately access the freshness and shelf life of olive oils.
If acted on, it would mark the first time the government has meaningfully policed the industry despite years of warnings from consumer advocates.
The abuse has persisted so long in part because extra virgin olive oil is widely misunderstood.
Even though it can be found on supermarket shelves, nestled among a sea of condiments, it has a finite shelf life. In reality, it’s closer to fresh-pressed juice — the good stuff, anyway.
Extra virgin rates as the highest grade because it’s extracted from fresh olives without the use of chemicals or heat. Beyond that, international standards also require that extra virgin olive oil pass, without failure, a whole battery of chemical and taste tests. Making quality extra virgin olive oil is tough.
And this business of grading of olive oil isn’t just some parochial foodie concern. It matters because these grades directly relate to value, taste and, crucially, health benefits.
Extra virgin olive oil has been clinically proven to reduce the incidence of heart disease and stroke. Olive oil loses these health benefits as it’s exposed to more aggressive production techniques, as in the lesser grades, or left on the shelf to wither on the supply-chain vine.
It’s not hard to understand then why some companies might be inclined to market lesser, cheaper oils as the highest grade: They get rich off duping consumers.
The National Consumers League applauds those who filed this petition, which referenced a separate four-year audit of the category between 2015 and 2019 that found that half of all extra virgin olive oil on supermarket shelves still fails to meet accepted standards for the grade.
That shouldn’t be. Congress, for its part, agrees. For the last two years, appropriators have urged the FDA to adopt a so-called standard of identity for olive oil, or enforceable rules to police the industry. This would give consumers real confidence in how they’re spending their money.
Americans deserve to know what they’re buying, but the truth is that they don’t today. We need enforceable standards that deliver on labels’ promises. We need the FDA to regulate olive oil.
Sally Greenberg serves as the executive director of the National Consumers League, the older consumer organization in the United States.