Amid growing questions about the alleged mislabeling of olive oil, a congressional committee is asking the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to test imports to look for unpure or misbranded products.
But members of the industry in Baltimore and elsewhere disagree about how to best weed out fraud and reassure consumers.
Under a federal budget proposal for fiscal 2017, the FDA would be required to sample olive oil imports and present findings within nine months to Congress, along with a plan "to ensure consumer safety and proper labeling of imported olive oil," according to a House appropriations bill report.
"The Committee [on Appropriations] is concerned with reports that consistently describe the prevalence of adulterated and fraudulently labeled olive oil imported into the United States and sold to American consumers," says a draft of the committee's report on proposed spending for the FDA and other agencies.
The report noted that products labeled as olive oil that may contain seed oil could pose a health risk to some consumers with allergies. The "extra virgin" grade of olive oil refers to it being the first extraction of the olive when it's cold-pressed, without being mixed or blended with other oils.
"I am all for it," Dimitrios Komninos, a part owner of Dimitri Olive Farms, a Baltimore-based importer, said of potential testing.
The business, which Komninos owns with his stepfather, imports extra virgin, unfiltered olive oil from the family's 100-year-old farm in Sparta, Greece, and sells it to Baltimore-area restaurants, at farmers' markets and at the year-old DEVOO Greek Deli in Mount Vernon.
"If you're buying Italian olive oil at the grocery store, you have no idea what you're getting," Komninos said. "If it's not pure, 100 percent extra virgin, you shouldn't put those words on it. I'm sure a lot of those oils are labeled extra virgin olive oil and they're not. They're blends of extra virgin."
USDA regulations governing the labeling of olive oil, passed in 2010, are voluntary. But some in the industry would like to see tighter regulations and a way to ensure that labeling meets approved standards for both virgin and extra virgin grades.
Consumers often don't realize differences in quality and authenticity of olive oil, said David Neuman, CEO of Gaea North America, a Florida-based subsidiary of Greek olive company Gaea. Some reports, he said, have shown that 80 percent of olive oil in grocery stores is either mislabeled — making the claim that it's extra virgin when it isn't — or what he called "counterfeit," mixed with seed oil.
"All are misuses of the consumers' trust," Neuman said. "I don't see any improvements. I don't see where retailers are making an effort to change their mix."
That's because the United States is the largest importer of olive oil in the world but produces only a small share of the product, he said.
"And we have a government that's not regulating the imports," he said. "If you're paying for extra virgin and not getting it, you're being ripped off."
FDA spokeswoman Lauren Sucher said she could not comment on the latest proposal because it is a draft. The agency's draft budget still must be passed by the full House and Senate.
The FDA has no measure of the scope of food fraud, which can include mislabeling products or ingredients, diluting products, providing less of a product than is listed on the box or not meeting federally established standards for particular products, she said.
But the agency has encountered food fraud in olive oil in the past, Sucher said, in cases in which products labeled as 100 percent olive oil had soybean oil, canola oil or other inexpensive vegetable oil mixed in. Other examples of fraud include non-honey sweeteners mixed with honey on a product labeled as honey and dilution of juice with water or another type of juice not listed on the label.
"The FDA takes seriously its responsibilities under federal law to protect consumers from fraudulent food," she said. "When companies or individuals produce food that does not meet standards for identity or that bears labeling that is not truthful, the FDA can take legal action."
Neuman and others say the proposed testing is misguided because it leaves out domestic producers, such as those in California, and could lead to shortages if testing is done before the oil makes its way into the United States.
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But David Bensadoun, CEO of Pompeian, a century-old Baltimore-based olive oil brand, said additional testing of olive oil quality is generally a good idea.
"The more the consumer is going to be reassured on the quality of olive oil, the better it's going to be," Bensadoun said.
But he believes standards of identity need to be agreed on and approved before FDA testing can be effective, and that any testing should apply to domestic olive oil as well.
Pompeian Group blends and bottles olive oil, wine vinegar and cooking wines in a historic Highlandtown plant. Last fall, it formed a partnership with a Spanish cooperative of 75,000 family farmers, DCOOP Group of Spain, to not only ensure a steady supply of raw material but to increase quality, safety and traceability of olive oil products, the company said.
The brand participates in the USDA's Quality Monitoring Program, a voluntary program in which bottled samples of its Extra Virgin Olive Oil are sent to USDA labs for chemical and smell and taste tests for quality, purity and origin. The brand promotes other certifications, such as a seal issued by the North American Olive Oil Association, which randomly tests olive oil to see if it meets standards set by the International Olive Council.
"I think what is important for the industry is to get organized" and adopt specific standards of identity that would be required nationwide, Bensadoun said. "There is no national standard for olive oil. Each state has its own definition of extra virgin and virgin, and that's created a lot of confusion."