by Jeff Colombini/chairman, Olive Oil Commission of California
In case you haven’t heard, last week a lawsuit was filed against Dr. Oz by the North American Olive Oil Association (NAOOA). The lawsuit centers around a May 12 episode of “The Dr. Oz Show” and claims that Dr. Oz violated libel laws when he stated that 80 percent of the extra virgin olive oil sold in supermarkets “isn’t the real deal” and “may even be fake.”
The NAOOA argues that Dr. Oz’s statements caused harm to its business and reputation and it is seeking damages and legal fees. Not surprisingly, “The Dr. Oz Show” plans to aggressively defend the story noting the subject of fraud in the olive oil industry has been covered by numerous other reputable news organizations, including “CBS News,” “60 Minutes,” The New York Times and Time magazine.
Our organization, the Olive Oil Commission of California (OOCC), has no intention of entering this debate with Dr. Oz and we have no doubt he will take the fight very seriously. Dr. Oz is correct in that he is not the first to address the issue of fraudulent marketing in the olive oil industry. In fact, concern about the credibility of olive oil quality is the very reason the OOCC was created.
The lawsuit may reinvigorate discussions and media coverage about the quality of olive oil sold in the U.S. marketplace. Perhaps this will provide a great opportunity to bring to light something that should be getting more attention. The fact is, there is a great deal being done around the world to improve olive oil quality and prevent fraud. The existence of the OOCC is proof of that—and we aren’t the only organization addressing the issue. But when we see media reports about olive oil fraud, they very seldom mention what’s being done to prevent it. In particular, we almost never see any reporting about the OOCC, which has now been in place for three years.
California is a relatively small but rapidly growing player in the world olive oil scene. Through the research, monitoring and testing programs of the OOCC, we are gaining deeper knowledge of California olive oil. We owe so much to the research and experience of the rest of the olive oil world, and we hope to build on this research and experience to continue to improve the quality of olive oils produced here in California.
With the goal of verifying the quality of California olive oil, the OOCC was structured as a unique public-private partnership with government that is mandatory for all olive oil produced in the state. Under the OOCC program, olive oil producers in California who process more than 5,000 gallons annually are subject to the mandatory California Department of Food & Agriculture (CDFA) standard for olive oil, which is the most stringent standard in the U.S.
Under the OOCC’s mandatory program:
• A designated number of olive oil samples are collected by California Department of Food and Agriculture officials from every OOCC handler member.
• Samples are sent to an accredited third-party laboratory located in Australia for sensory and chemical analysis.
• Results of the third-party analysis are provided back to the producers.
• In addition to the government sampling program, producers are responsible for having all of their remaining olive oil lots tested by a private laboratory.
• The grade verified through the CDFA sampling program must be accurately reflected on product labels for California olive oil.
The overarching objective of the OOCC program is not to prove that California olive oil is better than any other olive oil. The goal is to provide consumers with an improved shopping experience by providing simple, accurate labeling. Ultimately, we want consumers to know that when they see any olive oil from California on their supermarket store shelves, they know it can be trusted.
Are we there yet? Is California olive oil perfect every time? Probably not—but as California olive oil producers, we believe this is the right approach. And we’re definitely learning a lot as we examine quality tests results from our individual products and implement new growing practices and systems to continually improve our quality.
Personally, I hope that if the lawsuit against Dr. Oz generates any increased media coverage about olive oil quality that it will include information on how the industry is working to fix the problems of the past. I also hope that my fellow California olive oil producers will take the opportunity to tell people about the OOCC. The OOCC website can serve as a tremendous resource for explaining more about the program and how it benefits producers and consumers. It would be good if more people knew about the OOCC.
In fact, I think I’ll send some information about the OOCC to Dr. Oz.