USDA Provides Olive Oil Standards

August 09, 2010

A recent University of California at Davis study on olive oil is under fire by industry analysts and causing confusion among consumers.

A recent University of California at Davis study on olive oil is under fire by industry analysts and causing confusion among consumers. The report alleges that many of the olive oils lining supermarket shelves in the United States are not the top-grade extra virgin oils their labels declare. This focused media attention and debate makes it even more essential that we understand the difference between olive oil grades. To help you better understand the choices at the shelf, the USDA created a new set of olive oil labeling standards, set to take effect this October.

The new scientifically verifiable standards will provide a common language for trade and provide consumers more assurance of the quality of their olive oil purchases. It will put an end to marketing terms that are misleading and confusing to consumers, differentiating cheaper impostors from the best cold-pressed oils. The standards are based largely on the International Olive Oil Council's standards, which are recognized by olive-oil producers and marketers around the world. The revised U.S. grade standards include mandatory tests for flavor, odor, color, fatty acid composition, and ultraviolet absorption. They also include confirmatory tests to determine the purity of the olive oil. Optional tests include measures for flash point, heavy metals, pesticide residues and more, some of which are monitored by the FDA.

Trying to navigate the world of olive oils now can be bewildering. Many labels and bottles are designed to impress you with their authenticity by displaying "medals" or other awards. Don't be fooled by beautiful packaging. For example, only a small percentage of olive oil labeled as "Italian" or "Imported from Italy" is actually produced in Italy from Italian olives; most of the olives are grown and processed in Greece and Spain and shipped to Italy just for packaging. Read the labels carefully - nomenclature like "packed in" or "bottled in" is a sign that the olives themselves were grown elsewhere. Look for clear and precise language, for example: "grown and pressed in Lucca, Italy" or "made from Italian olives." Since the new standards are voluntary, consumers need to continue to carefully read labels.

If an olive oil is graded and meets the requirements of the standard for U.S. Extra Virgin Olive Oil, for example, then the product may be labeled U.S. Extra Virgin Olive Oil. Products cannot be labeled as U.S. Extra Virgin, or with any of the other official names in the standard which are preceded by "U.S.", unless it is officially graded by Processed Products Branch (PPB). The program is similar in nature to the USDA Organic Program, however PPB is the only certifying body for olive oil quality to U.S. standards. A USDA spokesman told that if during the course of USDA inspection, the product is found to be adulterated, the product would be reported to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). The US Standards for Grades of Olive Oil were first established in 1948, the new standards become effective October 24, 2010. So, after October, when shopping for extra virgin olive oil, the USDA seal of approval on the bottle will assure you that the oil inside is the real deal. 

The USDA's regulations include the following grades:

Extra virgin olive oil: the highest grade, made from the first pressing of the olives and uses no heat or other methods to extract the oil. It is the smoothest and has an acidity level not exceeding one percent. The oil must also have "perfect" aroma, flavor, and color. Extra Virgin olive oil is a delicate product and for the best flavor should be packaged in a light-safe bottle (dark green or amber) or in tin.

Virgin olive oil: a virgin oil, but its acidity level can be up to two percent. It should also taste smooth and have a good aroma, flavor, and color.

Olive oil: a blend of refined and virgin olive oil. It must have an acidity level of less than 1.5 percent. Olive oil with flavor or an aroma that is less than perfect is further refined to produce an odorless, colorless, and tasteless oil. Virgin olive oil is then added to give it some flavor and color. The resulting oil varies in the amount of virgin olive oil added, which in turn accounts for different concentrations of flavor and ultimately price.