Saturday, October 11, 2008

California Governor Signs Landmark Bill Updating Definitions for Olive Oil

On September 30, the last day that he had to approve or reject bills, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger signed into law Senate Bill (SB) 634, legislation by Senator Patricia Wiggins (D – Santa Rosa) to update California’s definitions of olive oil grades to conform to international standards.

SB 634 also defines “flavored olive oil” to reflect market practices and would require that olive oil be labeled consistent with the updated food grade definitions.

According to Wiggins, “olive oil is a rapidly growing industry in California, with volume projected to increase by 1000 percent in the next five years. California also produces 99.9% of the olive oil grown in the U.S.

“But state law does not define olive oil grades, and as a result the grades commonly seen on olive oil bottles – such as extra virgin – don’t need to meet any standards,” Wiggins said. “I thank Governor Schwarzenegger for his support of SB 634, which establishes new definitions that meet international standards, and requires that bottles of olive oil be labeled accordingly. This will help consumers make informed choices based on consistent standards for quality.”

Dan Flynn, executive director of the UC Davis Olive Center, described SB 634 as “a landmark bill that will be good for consumers and California producers. ‘Extra virgin’ on the label finally will assure extra virgin in the bottle.”

Almost all of the state’s olive oil producers voluntarily conform to standards adopted by the International Olive Council (IOC) in the production of “extra virgin” olive oil. The IOC, based in Madrid, is an intergovernmental organization of 40 nations formed in 1956.

“Extra virgin” is the highest olive oil grade identified by the IOC. International standards require, among other things, that extra virgin olive oil be produced solely by mechanical means, without the heat or solvents used to make grain or seed oils such as corn and canola. The IOC standards ensure the quality of olive oil, but also make it a more expensive product than other oils.

Flavored oils, such as lemon olive oil or jalapeno olive oil, are increasingly popular with consumers, but existing law does not address these products.

Wiggins said the current state definition of “olive oil,” in existence since 1947, does not include “extra virgin olive oil,” which is the grade of nearly all California-produced olive oils. Nor does it include other common olive oil grades identified by the IOC or flavored oils that are increasingly popular with consumers.

Unlike wine, virgin olive oil does not need to be aged to create complexity. The faster the fruit is crushed, the fresher the product will be, due to the esterification reaction that occurs over time between free alcohols and free fatty acids. According to the California Olive Oil Council (COOC), the state’s olive oil producers are able to bring their fresh product to market sooner than international counterparts. Most imported oils arrive months, if not years, after they are pressed.

COOC Board President Alan Greene said that his organization is “delighted that the Governor has taken this positive step for California consumers and growers. We are grateful to Senator Wiggins for introducing SB 634 and working the bill through the legislative process. We also extend our thanks to the California Department of Food & Agriculture, and specifically, to CDFA Secretary A.G. Kawamura, for their support of this effort.”

Greene also echoed Dan Flynn’s characterization of SB 634 as “landmark legislation for California. And it shows how bipartisanship on the part of the Governor and Legislature can be positive and beneficial for both consumers and growers.”

The COOC, which represents over 80% of all the olive oil grown and produced in the U.S., is the only certified quality-control program in North America whose standards exceed those of the IOC.

The purpose of the COOC certification program is to provide producers and marketers with a standardized method of grading 100% California olive oil as extra virgin, to provide consumers with the assurance that the oil is actually extra virgin, and to provide producers and marketers that meet the certification standard with a means to distinguish their product in the marketplace.

In order for a producer to gain certification, they must submit their oil to the COOC panel of tasters for a sensory evaluation, as well as a chemical analysis, performed by a COOC certified laboratory. The panel of tasters has undertaken a training and certification program, and undergoes ongoing training. Their role is to ascertain an oil's defects, such as musty, rancid or greasy, as well as desirable attributes such as fruity, bitter or pungent.

According to Wiggins, SB 634 will “not only provide consumers with better information, it will also facilitate the increased export of California olive oils and help spur adoption of national standards.”

SB 634 was sponsored by the COOC, as well as the North American Olive Oil Association. Wiggins represents California’s large 2nd Senate District, which stretches from Humboldt County to Solano County and also includes portions or all of Lake, Mendocino, Napa and Sonoma Counties.

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