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Back Olive It! Part IV. Extra Virgin Part II Certifiable?

In the 1950’s technological advances started creating distinct differences between olive oils using advanced extraction techniques, centrifuges and hammer mills, and the more traditional stone mill and mechanical press. By 1960 the International Olive Council decided to create some standards for the industry in order to create some distinctions between the olive oils produced by these varied methods.

In addition to the changes in production methods there continued to be widespread fraud and adulteration of this valuable product. In addition, technology was being used to extract more oil from the left-over pomace through the refining process. This chemically extracted oil was far less tasty and healthy than its naturally extracted counterpart. A twofold methodology was implemented.

The first was a chemical analysis that would not only give a Standard of “quality” but also address the issues of identifying adulteration. The second part of the process was an organoleptic component. This was designed to add the human “qualitative” element to the process with what was deemed to be a scientific sensory evaluation.

The issue of having standard morph into quality is very problematic. Let’s look at the flaws in the reasoning of equating these practices with the concept of quality.

If we look at the relationship between quality and standards, I think it would be useful to use another relationship for perspective. Your Standard of living is a fairly well-defined set of numbers based on wealth, income, material goods and necessities that determine your socio-economic level. Although there are hard figures used in these calculations, the actual outcomes are somewhat loose in interpretation. Now compare that with your “quality” of life. This is much more subjective and varies within the Standard model depending on the individual. So, the laboratory testing methods give olive oil a nice Standard. The testing procedures continue to get better and more refined (so to speak) so these standards continue to become more reliable. They have also reduced the amount of adulteration drastically and continue to make inroads into this important issue. All this testing does not tell us how good an olive oil tastes. Also keep in mind the testing takes place at a given point of time usually quite soon after harvest. This only gives us an indication of where the oil is at that specific time. Olive oil is a very complex and evolving product. There are many factors working on this evolution that can drastically change the chemistry. There are some indications from the chemical testing, especially some newer methods being adopted by the industry, about how this evolution might take place. Unfortunately, they cannot accurately look into the future and compensate for all the possible factors in bottling, shipping storage and how these will actually affect the “quality” olive oil.

The introduction of a qualified taste panel into the standardization process was meant to offer a qualitative aspect. By using statistical methods, the idea was to attempt to quantify the quality of the olive oil. Unfortunately, the logic does not follow. To carry out this feat first there needs to be a definition of quality. This is the fatal flaw as the definition is a subjective to those doing the defining.

Now this type of logic has been applied to other products in the past and continues into the present day. Take for example the AOC (not her silly), Appellation d’Origine Controllee of France or the DOC, Denominazione di Origine Controllata of Italy. They have created standards for products from wine to cheese and many others. These standards have been held in great esteem for a long period of time. The rules governing them are very rigid and maintained by local experts. The products under these auspices tend to be quite delicious to some but by no means guarantee you will enjoy the piquant Roquefort cheese or Corsican honey is your cup of tea. These standards also do not offer a lot of flexibility. Innovation and accommodation for changing tastes are not baked into this recipe. An example of this can be found in Tuscany. Some of the most prized wines from the region do not meet the strict DOC standards and cannot use the traditional names of their region. Therefore, they have created there own classification and we know them as the Super-Tuscan wines. Another example of standards that don’t conform to a changing market is the USDA Prime and Choice standards for beef. Today the most popular and arguably the most expensive beef these days are “grass fed” and “free range” beef most of which do not meet these government standards for “quality”.

But I digress. Basically, a group of experts come up with what they feel “good” olive oil should taste like and what “flaws” they feel the olive oil should not have. Does this mean that you would like or dislike these flavors in your olive oil? I can’t answer that, only you can. Does this mean that it will taste the exact same six months after certification? Probably not. The pass/ fail aspect of the taste panel does not even tell if everyone on the panel agreed that it should pass, only a majority agreed. I’ll leave you with a few thoughts. What do you call the person who graduated Medical School last in their class?

Does this mean that they will be a good doctor? I don’t know. Does this mean they will be the right doctor for your specific case? Next Time, Help! What Do I Look For???? Slainte! Thom