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California's Olive Oil Industry Gets A Victory

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Let's start with a simple thought experiment: You're in the grocery store, are in desperate need of olive oil, and have no specific brand you're attached to. So, you go to the olive oil section and begin scanning the shelves. During your search, your eyes are drawn to two different brands.

They are essentially identical in every way -- price, color, shape of the bottle, buzzwords about the "extra virgin" contents inside -- except for one distinct difference. One has a certification from a state board that says the oil has been certified for purity and quality, and one does not. Which do you buy?

California's olive oil industry is betting you'll choose the first.

In a dramatic new gesture, the California Department of Food and Agriculture announced it is considering standards for grading the purity and quality of olive oil made in the state. What makes this such a big deal? Until now, there have been absolutely zero standards when it comes to the quality of olive oil. These would be the first. And foreign olive oil producers are seeing these new California standards as unfairly changing the game:

"The manipulative and confrontational tactics are not serving any California industry segment," Eryn Balch, executive vice president of the North American Olive Oil Assn., which represents importers, wrote in a letter to the California Department of Food and Agriculture.

That's some serious language there, which shows you how this move is being perceived. What is upsetting foreign producers is that, if these new standards are instituted, the above thought experiment might turn into a reality; it's not as if importers are going to comply with standards dictated by the state of California. And if casual buyers are enticed by certifications that only one portion of the producers are using, the importers will start losing a whole bunch of money.

The argument from the California growers, however, is "too bad." They believe these new standards will level a flawed playing field formed from the mentality of shoppers who believe the only good olive oil comes from abroad. It doesn't. In fact, most imported olive oil is terrible.

While countries like Spain and Italy are known for their olive oil (to the point where 97 percent of the olive oil consumed in America is imported), that doesn't mean they're shipping their best stuff over here. Actually, most of the olive oil that's being imported is the worst they have to offer; most of the olive oils labeled "extra virgin" are actually rancid.

Notes Tom Mueller, the author of the book-length olive oil examination "Extra Virginity":

"It's rare to find authentic extra virgin olive oil in a restaurant in America, even in fine restaurants that ought to know better. It's nearly impossible in some localities such as southern California, where large-scale counterfeiters pump out blends of low-grade olive oil and soybean oil dyed bright green..."

This is due to the American diet not yet being accustomed to the intricacies of the olive oil flavor. As such, we're not as picky, and importers are taking advantage of this. In the meantime, there are flavorful and delicious olive oils to be had that are made within our borders, but they're not given a shot because they don't have those magical words "Spain" or "Italy" printed on the bottle.

Which is all to say, this new move may not only benefit California growers, but it may also benefit consumers. Whether or not the system is inherently "fair" or not to the importers, if it gives consumers the excuse to try a better olive oil, maybe the new grading system is a win.

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