By now, it is likely that the bottles of extra virgin olive oil that arrived on European store shelves before July 1, 2012 have found their way into kitchens across the European continent. However, a surprise awaits producers and importers who remain unaware of the new EU marketing standards and labeling requirements applicable to retail olive oil put into circulation after that date. For consumers in the habit of reading the labels on this increasingly precious substance, the new rules will take some getting used to. Years ago, this would have been a non-event — in fact, it probably would not have even attracted the attention of EU legislators. Before the meteoric rise of what is now the third largest specialty product in the US after coffee and chocolate (the US is the major market for EU olive oil), olive oil was a niche product of the Mediterranean that catered to local tastes, its consumers largely oblivious to the occasional scandal. Today, European olive oil must compete with a small but growing army of devoted entrepreneurial producers across the globe, who — for better or worse — lack European cultural baggage and rely on scientifically certifiable quality to "grow their markets."
The EU has responded to this new competition with Commission Implementing Regulation (EU) No 29/2012 and a host of other new laws related to compulsory descriptions, health and nutrition claims, additives, organics and environmental protection. Increasingly stringent regulation will no doubt assist in accelerating olive oil's rise to the upper realms of agricultural commodities — not quite a product for the "one percent," but almost.
The EU is not the only jurisdiction where new, strict olive oil standards are being enacted. The US Department of Agriculture published new standards for grades of olive oil and olive pomace oil in 2010, replacing a regulatory framework dating from the late 1940s. A new federal marketing law is also in the works and various states, ranging from traditional producers of olive oil like California to non-producers like Connecticut, have also passed laws addressing olive oil. In January 2011, President Obama signed the Food Safety Modernization Act into law, which was described by the FDA as the "most sweeping reform" of US food safety regulations in over 70 years. Various other countries have followed suit as olive production expands to meet the new worldwide demand. While it is unlikely that non-EU producers will have a significant effect on the European market, vast markets are opening up across Asia with a new, sophisticated and well-educated consumer base that is increasingly adept at seeking out quality olive oil. EU producers must compete in these markets, especially since consumption is reportedly falling across southern Europe due to declining economic conditions.
Regulation 29/2012 codifies and consolidates amendments to 2002 legislation. It specifies that consumer packaging should be small (up to a maximum five liters in volume) and fitted with an opening that cannot be resealed. Current olive oil description are supplemented by Regulation 29/2012's stipulation that, "extra virgin" must be labeled "superior category olive oil obtained directly from olives and solely by mechanical means." The term "superior" has yet to be defined, but a battery of tests capable of determining characteristics that eluded food chemists until recently will no doubt fill this gap.
As set out in the 2007 Regulation Establishing a Common Organization of Agricultural Markets [PDF], only "extra virgin," "virgin," a mixture of "refined" and "virgin" and "olive-pomace oil" may be sold at retail. "Refined olive oil" (i.e. without the addition of "virgin"), "crude olive pomace oil" and "refined olive-pomace oil" may not be sold at retail. Regulation 29/2012 requires that descriptions of the above categories must be set out in "clear and indelible lettering." Extra virgin and virgin olive oil must bear a designation of the origin of the olives and, when different, the location of processing. Lower quality oils are prohibited from bearing a designation of origin on the grounds that this is confusing to consumers who may wrongly associate a particular origin with quality. Blends, in terms of origins, must be clearly stated. The use of brand names indicating origin may only continue if the associated trademark was applied for before 1998 in the EU. Optional indications, such as "first cold press," "cold extraction" and indications of "organoleptic" properties may also appear only on extra virgin or virgin oils — the latter only if they are based on the results of assessments carried out in the manner specified in the earlier regulations.
Blends of olive and other oils must be specified, and the presence of olive oil may be highlighted by images or graphics only if it constitutes more than 50 percent of the blend. EU member states may prohibit the production of such blends for internal consumption, but not for imports or oils made for export. Specific rules are also set out for foods packed with olive oil.
Member states in which the manufacturer, pack or seller appearing on the label is located may demand from producers documentation regarding facts, results of analyses, or administrative or accounting information with regard to the abovementioned requirements.
This new regulation constitutes only one aspect of the strict regulatory regime growing up around olive oil. As the price differential between olive oil and other edible oils expands, the stakes are getting larger. The olive oil lobby is expanding to express the wishes of producers whose success depends heavily on the ability and will of legislators to protect quality indicators and the marketing environment of olive oil. The approach of the EU, where olive oil is steeped in tradition and enjoys considerable 'good will' for the moment, is demonstrably different from that of the US and other relatively science-based newcomers. Along with the new Regulation, the EU has recently issued an Action Plan for Olive Oil, developed on the basis of a 2011 Green Paper on "Promoting the Tastes of Europe." Virtually all players in this sector depend on law-based standards for continued growth in a world where much of the population — some say 99 percent — is necessarily turning away from luxury goods.
Virginia Keyder is a Lecturer in EU law at Bogazici University and Sabanci University in Istanbul, Turkey, and IP and international law at the State University of New York at Binghamton. She has previously served as the Foreign Law Specialist at Mark Levy & Associates, and has served as a consultant on EU IP law. From 2000-2002, Keyder served as the Turkey Correspondent for JURIST. Her current research projects include a book on olive oil and the law.
Suggested citation: Virginia Keyder, Law and Olive Oil: The New Green Gold, JURIST - Forum, Aug 1, 2012, http://jurist.org/forum/2012/07/virginia-keyder-olive-oil.php.
This article was prepared for publication by Caleb Pittman, head of JURIST's academic commentary service. Please direct any questions or comments to him at firstname.lastname@example.org