In supermarkets, fresh foods are found around the perimeter of the store while the aisles are filled with shelf stable items. Olive oil has always been considered shelf stable, but this is a misnomer because, even in unopened bottles, olive oil ages; and unlike wine, not in a good way. Freshness is a key factor in flavor, yet without dating information provided on labels, consumers have no way to discern how fresh their purchase is.
All olive oil, extra virgin or not, oxidizes as it ages because of the instability of its molecular structure. Although you can extend shelf life by protecting olive oil from the elements that promote oxidation - exposure to light, heat and air - eventually all olive oil becomes rancid.
In European countries, producers are required to provide a “best used by” date (also known as a pull date) on every container of olive oil. The industry standard for this dating is 24 months, which leads one to conclude that oil will remain fresh for 2 years, but in most cases this is not true. Although occasionally an oil will not begin to oxidize within 2 years, most oils do become rancid within this timeframe. In fact, rancidity can often be detected just 1 year after harvest, and sometimes even sooner depending on storage conditions and varietal attributes.
It’s important to understand that pull dates are not based on the age of the oil from harvest, but instead from the date when the oil was bottled. Consider for example that harvest was in November 2009, after which the oil was in bulk storage before being bottled the following March; that bottle will reach the store shelf with a pull date of March 2012 which is 28 months after milling.
Let’s consider a different scenario in which the oil being bottled is a blend from two years’ harvests, which frankly is a common practice with many foreign producers. This product, containing oil from both the 2008 and 2009 harvests, if bottled in March 2010 would have a pull date of March 2012, however at that point some percentage of the oil will be nearly 3-1/2 years old!
Although “best used by” dates are not a good indication of the oil’s freshness, they are better than no information at all. Currently the U.S. does not require that any dating information be placed on olive oil labels. (In fact, the U.S. has not even adopted quality standards for grades of olive oil, but that is a subject for another article.) A knowledgeable consumer might be able to calculate the age of the oil from its pull date or the lot code (which often has the bottling date imbedded into it), however on most products the age of the oil is difficult, if not impossible, to decipher.
One solution for consumers is to encourage producers to use realistic pull dates, such as 12 or 18 months post harvest and not bottling. The main argument against this idea is that it doesn’t allow enough time to sell the oil due to the logistics of distribution. Consider the following example in which oil is milled in November, bottled in January, shipped in February, and placed onto store shelves in March. If the claim that consumers are reluctant to purchase oil within 6 months of the pull date is accurate, there would be only 2 to 8 months to sell each year’s production. This would leave store shelves devoid of olive oil for several months each year, which is impractical for everyone - producers, consumers and retailers alike.
An alternative solution is to provide harvest dates on packaging instead of pull dates. While harvest dates are featured in the promotion of Olio Nuovos and Novellos, which are marketed immediately after milling, that same harvest date no longer seems current in January when the calendar changes to the new year. This impression occurs because some consumers are not aware that olives are an annual crop and that oil is produced only once each year, so a bottle dated November 2009 loses its appeal in 2010. Harvest dating negatively impacts the sales of imported brands since many of these oils do not appear on store shelves well into the following year.
Nevertheless, providing a harvest date is a good way for smaller producers to distinguish their products from supermarket brands, although providing this information has its price. Due to printer minimums, smaller producers are forced to purchase more than a year’s worth of labels at a time. Also changing the copy on your labels every year incurs additional design and set-up costs. Another option is to add the harvest date onto labels by hand, however this is time-consuming and requires legible handwriting.
The California Olive Oil Council (COOC) offers a different solution. The Council’s Extra Virgin Seal Certification Program was established to guarantee that oil bearing the seal was of extra virgin quality. Knowing that this oil would be for sale during the new year, the COOC prints the “sell” year onto the Seal instead of the harvest year. The COOC seal informs consumers that the oil they are purchasing is for use during the year displayed on the seal.
Consumers and retailers alike have begun asking producers to include dating information on olive oil packaging, and providing this information is a good way to distinguish your brand from the others in the marketplace. It also helps to educate consumers about the importance of olive oil freshness; as they inquire why some brands provide dates and others don’t, they will discover why this information is so important in their selection of a fresh oil. And any opportunity to educate consumers will help you build brand loyalty for your product.