Olive oil with a sprig of fresh rosemary

Almost 70% of imported and 10% of California-produced extra-virgin olive oils sold at the state’s supermarkets and big-box retailers were mislabeled and may have confused consumers, according to a report from the Olive Oil Chemistry Laboratory at the University of California, Davis.

These findings prompted the California Olive Oil Council (COOC) to petition the U.S. Department of Agriculture to revise oils’ grade standards. 

The USDA has granted the petition and is in the process of altering the standards so they’ll conform to those commonly accepted by the U.S. and international olive oil industry. Definitions for the various grades—including extra-virgin, virgin, refined and olive pomace oil—will be amended. The USDA expects these revisions to affect olive oil importers, as well as 500+ domestic  producers and growers.

“The COOC was founded to promote quality extra-virgin olive oil grown in California, and we welcome the opportunity to help fund and support any research that exposes defective or adulterated oils wherever they exist—even in our own backyard,” says Albert Katz, cofounder of Katz and Company, a Napa Valley-based producer of organic oils.

Tips from Linda Sikorski, head buyer for Market Hall Foods in Oakland

  1. Check the label. Does it say “extra-virgin” olive oil? Is there a harvest or milling date, in addition to the best-use date? Is the harvest date within 12 months? Extra-virgin oil is “best used” within 18 months. Make sure the oil is purchased well in advance of the best-used date.
  2. What about the bottle? Is the bottle’s color dark, which reduces light exposure? Is it on the top shelf, exposed to direct light? Light dramatically shortens shelf life, so look for signs that indicate the bottle has been on the shelf too long (for example, dust).
  3.  Look for the COOC seal, which assures the olive oil is extra-virgin, grown in California and from the most recent harvest.
  4. Know your retailer. Buy from retailers who know their producers, growers and importers. Ask for a taste. Many specialty retailers are generous with sampling, as they want you to know what you’re buying.
  5. Verify when buying online. Check for the harvest date, and always buy from the most recent harvest. Ask before you complete your purchase.

Photo: The World Through Athene’s Eyes