Will American consumers pay more for olive oil that claims to be even more pristine than extra-virgin? Will they even be able to tell the difference?
With the value of the "extra-virgin" designation diluted by fraud and dozens of new California labels looking for a way to stand out in a tight market, some in the olive-oil business think it's time for a higher standard.
This week, Claudio Peri, a food science professor at the University of Milan and the founder of a movement he calls "Beyond Extra Virgin," is at the University of California, Davis, to sell his idea to California's emerging olive oil industry. A two-day conference wraps up today.
The problem, say Peri and many in the California olive oil industry, is that much -- if not most -- of the extra-virgin oil on the U.S. market doesn't deserve the label. Extra-virgin oil requires a strict harvest and processing regimen that yields certain flavor qualities recognizable to expert tasters. Many of the major label extra-virgin brands don't make the cut, they say.
"The globalization of the olive oil industry is homogenizing the market. It really depletes the average quality," said Peri, 69, in an interview Tuesday.
Extra-virgin or not, olive oil has become a hot item in U.S. supermarkets, with sales volume doubling from 1996 to 2006, to roughly 60 million gallons. The average American consumes just under a quart of olive oil a year; consumption in several Mediterranean countries is more than 12 times greater.
This year, the state's olive oil production is expected to be as much as 700,000 gallons, up nearly threefold since 2001.