It has been about 30 years since many Americans began giving up their lard and Crisco for more-healthful extra-virgin oil. But that extra-virgin label has proved a poor guide to choosing the highest-quality oils. According to a recent study by the UC Davis Olive Center, 73 percent of the top five brands of imported extra-virgin olive oil failed to meet accepted international standards for extra-virgin. Moreover, a separate report revealed that 44 percent of consumers actually preferred rancid or fusty oil, a possible result of the prevalence of substandard extra-virgins available to American consumers.
Now, a new movement is afoot to redefine extra-virgin, teaching consumers — and the marketplace — what makes high-quality olive oil. Last year, Pasquali helped build an olive oil tasting program at the Culinary Institute of America in California’s Napa Valley. An international organization, 3E, has created a “super-premium” category for extra-virgin oils that meet exacting standards of production, milling and storage. At the “Beyond Extra Virgin” conference this summer in Cordoba, Spain, the executive director of the International Olive Council, the guardian of the current extra-virgin standard, acknowledged that better label information should be a “priority for the sector.”
New students of olive oil often believe the product was better before the sector industrialized. But extra-virgin oil is, in fact, a 20th-century invention. New technology allowed for faster picking and pressing and, therefore, fresher oil. Modern storage techniques eliminated exposure to heat and light, two factors that lead to rancidity. Indeed, the European Parliament invented the term “extra-virgin” only in 1960. Many Americans believe it refers to the first pressing of the olives, but in fact it’s a baseline standard that embraces any oil made by solely mechanical means, instead of chemical treatment, and with less than 0.8 percent of free acidity, a laboratory measurement of rancidity. (Formerly, the limit was 1 percent.) Extra-virgin oils also are forbidden to have “disgusting odors such as rancidity, putridity, smoke, mold and olive fly.”
“Extra-virgin just means it’s free of defects,” said Greg Drescher, executive director of strategic initiatives at the Napa CIA. “Can you imagine a stamp of approval in the wine industry that says it’s good enough because it’s not defective?”
The popularity of the Mediterranean diet in the 1990s was a boon to the olive oil industry. But olive oil fraud was also on the rise, according to a forthcoming book, “Extra Virginity,” by Tom Mueller (Norton, 2011). Generous government subsidies encouraged farmers and corporations to overstate their production figures and to make up the difference with inferior olive oil or even seed oils. Americans aren’t the only consumers who are cheated. “There is no difference between Tuscany and the United States,” said Pasquali, who takes his own olive oil with him to local restaurants. “We’re all in the same boat.”