February 01, 2003
San Francisco - The January 2003 seminar at NASFT was part of an ongoing effort by the California Olive Oil Council (COOC) to educate retailers and the public about olive oil quality and origins. Consumer organizations which monitor product quality such as the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval and the American Tasting Institute rate foods and give seals of approval but don't have enforcement powers to prevent fraud.
In nearly every other part of the world, olive oil labeling is governed by the International Olive Oil Council (IOOC). The US does not recognize this body and the agency which oversees food fraud, the FDA, has no labeling law for the definition of extra virgin. Consequently many importers have labeled oils which would be considered of lower quality in their own countries as a higher quality of oil when sold in the US. This undermines confidence in olive oil in general and hurts the U.S. olive oil producers who are trying to sell a quality oil.
Until the U.S. government recognizes the IOOC, the COOC has created their own quality seal. Oils receiving the seal must have been tested in a lab for low acidity and must pass a tasting test. The tastings are done by a panel put together by Roberta Zecca of the COOC and Paul Vossen of U.C Davis. They have been trained and certified in Europe by the IOOC and have trained the panel, which is now the only official tasting body for the IOOC in Northern America. The COOC seal therefore certifies that the oil is up to IOOC standards.
The seminar was presented by Paul Vossen, Roberta Zecca, panel member Nancy Ash and COOC president Al Katz. Because good qualities are more subjective, much of tasting is about detecting defective oil which may be old with a brief shelf life, rancid, or produced or stored in a defective manner. Defects include such qualities as fusty, musty, winey, vinegary, muddy, metallic, rancid, etc.
Paul Vossen spoke about the health attributes of olive oil and explained olive oil production techniques. He pointed out that olive variety is the biggest determinant of flavor followed by time of harvest, processing, and storage.
Roberto Zecca led a tasting of five oils. Samples were available to each attendee along with grading sheets. Three oils were of good quality, one had fusty characteristics and one was rancid. The seminar attendees, mostly food brokers, retailers and distributors from the show, had a chance to taste and learn these characteristics .
Albert Katz explained the function of the COOC. Nancy Ash was responsible for organizing the event and helped with the sensory evaluation and question and answer period.
Everyone agreed that the seminar accomplished its goals with attendees asking sophisticated questions demonstrating the general high level of professionalism in the audience.