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Why Can’t We Regulate Restaurant Olive Oil?

Bottled olive oil. Credit: foodistablog

Bottled olive oil. Credit: foodistablog

The European Commission has shown customary timidity in abruptly withdrawing a proposal made last week to exert minimal control over the quality of olive oil served in restaurants. The idea behind the proposal was admirable — that olive oil be served in original, tamper-proof bottles that state the oil’s credentials on the label, rather than poured from an anonymous jug into cruets or bowls on the table. In that way, consumers would be certain of what they’re being served and there would be no easy way of substituting bad oil for good. Restaurants, in the commission’s words, should be “obliged to use oil bottles equipped with an opening system which cannot be resealed after the first time it is opened, together with a protection system preventing them from being reused once the contents indicated on the label have been finished.”

This was not a sudden decision. It had been discussed for at least a year. And to those of us who have encountered, over and over again, rancid, fusty, smelly, old oil in those colorful little bowls or cruets on restaurant tables — even in some very fine establishments — it made good sense. But the proposal evoked an outcry from journalists, chefs, restaurateurs and the public at large such that you might think the EC had proposed reinstating capital punishment.

Baffling backlash

Consumer protection? No way! This was out-and-out interference in commerce, the naysayers cried, especially commerce that involved “little guys” — small-scale restaurateurs and café owners and small-farm producers of olive oil. This was Brussels interfering with time-honored traditions, forcing out modest concerns in favor of big industrial-sized multinationals that promote commodity olive oil. The virtue of this argument is difficult to understand because large producers would have very little to gain from the proposal. But in the end, the EC, bowing to pressure on all sides, withdrew the regulation.

Much of the uproar came from sources with nothing on the table. I cannot speak for the German press, but British journalists suddenly had, as they themselves might say, their knickers in a twist over the proposal. Silly Europeans, the Brits snickered, there they go again, fussing over trivia, imposing ridiculous rules on innocent restaurateurs, as if they didn’t have anything else to worry about in Brussels. Why don’t they do something about the economy instead?

Elsewhere, however, the outcry was even more difficult to understand and I got the impression that most people simply had not read the proposal. It is not a hardship for restaurateurs to provide tamper-proof bottles of olive oil since that is the way most small quantities of olive oil are sold. I buy oil in half-liter bottles or tins in local shops where I live in Tuscany. These containers almost uniformly have a plastic pour spout inside that is difficult to remove, and through which it would be difficult to refill the bottle. Furthermore, bottles such as these are the product of many different olive oil purveyors, from small, local farmers to substantial wineries that also produce oil for large, supra-national concerns. Disposing of the bottles once the contents are gone is also an easy task — they simply go into the glass-product recycling bins that are universal in most of Europe.

Check out the following excerpt from Public Radio International’s “The World,” a daily NPR news program:

At a little café in a Spanish village. . . the owner, a guy named Aris, says he’s indignant [about the new regulations]. Aris drives to his favorite olive orchard . . . to buy his oil right out of the presses. He tops up his big five-gallon jugs, and each morning at the café he fills his oil flasks by hand, then sets one on each table. . . . He says he doesn’t understand how Europe can have a problem with this.

Not necessarily extra virgin olive oil

The problem, simply stated, is that all over Europe, thousands of restaurateurs, large and small, top off oil flasks or cruets or bowls with what is most likely not extra virgin at all but a much lesser grade of olive oil — if, in fact, it is even olive oil and not some cheap substitute. And if it is extra virgin, it will most likely be rancid, fusty and several years out of date — just a few of the most common faults in extra virgin olive oil that not only give bad flavors and aromas to the food served, but also ultimately are bad for diners’ health. And even if it happens to be good olive oil when it goes into the flasks that are filled, day after day over the years without being cleaned, it’s inevitable that the “fresh” oil added will be thoroughly contaminated by the nastiness at the bottom of the flask.

I would hazard a conservative guess, based on long years of experience, that at least 70% of the oil on tables in European restaurants, and at least 85% of the oil on tables in American restaurants, would not pass muster if the research team at UC Davis’ Olive Center were to take up the challenge and test them for their extra virginity. When they tested imported extra virgin oils available in California retail shops a couple of years ago, 73% failed to meet sensory standards.


Which is why, when I go to an ordinary restaurant, and even sometimes to extraordinary ones, even in the olive oil-producing regions of Spain, Greece, Italy and California, I carry with me a small, discreet tin of high-quality extra virgin to adorn my dishes when necessary in order to avoid what’s in those cute glass, or rustic terracotta, or other type of cruets that sit on every restaurant table. (Of course, that doesn’t save me from the fact that they’ve been cooking my food with that junk, does it?)

Fresh-pressed extra virgin olive oil in Italy. Credit: Nancy Harmon Jenkins

Fresh-pressed extra virgin olive oil in Italy. Credit: Nancy Harmon Jenkins

Essentially, the problem the EC was trying to address was consumer fraud, a serious concern with olive oil, in Europe as everywhere else in the world — as many of these same journalists have been whining about for years. The new requirement would have prevented unscrupulous restaurateurs from filling their cruets with questionable oil. It was a tiny step forward in government efforts to combat fraud and to prevent what is all too often nasty, out-of-date, fake, unacceptable oil from being served up as if it were something genuine and special.

One simply cannot have it both ways. We cannot moan over fraudulent olive oil masquerading as fine extra virgin, and then gripe and sneer when the government takes a first, tentative step toward rectifying the situation. If we truly want reform, if we truly want to be sure that the oil in that bottle or on that table is what it says it is, then we must expect a lot more similar, and quite possibly even more stringent regulation in the years ahead. And welcome to it!

Top photo: Bottled olive oil. Credit: Flickr / foodistablog

Zester Daily contributor Nancy Harmon Jenkins is the author of many books about Italy and the Mediterranean. Her most recent books are "Virgin Territory: Exploring the World of Olive Oil," published by Houghton Mifflin in February 2015, and "The Four Seasons of Pasta," published by Avery in October 2015.

  • Adri 6·3·13

    I could not agree more. I am terribly sorry to see the proposal withdrawn. Strict regulation at all levels is the only way to protect the public, but more importantly, the extra virgin olive oil industry itself.

  • Oilchef 6·3·13

    It is right that a minimal standard of quality assurance be introduced to keep quality on the table’s and the food. This gives consumers confidence, restauranteurs credibility and producers a value added quality symbol.

  • Barbara 6·4·13

    Let me think, wine is in their own bottles, good hot sauces can come to the table in the their brand bottles……..

  • pierino 6·4·13

    Please allow me to make a rather bold assertion. Right now California is producing extra virgin olive oils that are superior to most of the European imports. California oils are now about where California wines were back in the 70’s. At last they are getting just recognition. I know because I’ve worked in the business and part of my job has been tasting oils. The California Olive Council (COC) standards are even stricter than the IOC’s to qualify as “extra virgin”.

  • Alexandra Kicenik Devarenne 6·4·13

    A very insightful article on this topic was posted from close to the center of the storm on a Greek olive oil news site

    It’s pretty clear that this was not just about olive oil. It is a shame that this particular initiative fell victim to such a dumb partisan assassination effort. Olive oil is not a trivial industry in the Mediterranean, and a law that will improve sales of genuine extra virgin and protect consumers is not a “silly law” as the press kept repeating. It works well in Portugal, the one country that has already got such a law on the books. EU consumers will now continue to have the dubious freedom to consume utterly heinous crud in refilled restaurant bottles or cruets — sometimes it won’t even be olive oil, let alone extra virgin.

  • Tina Caputo 6·4·13

    Does the proposed regulation only apply to the olive oil served at the table? What about the stuff they’re using in the kitchen to cook your food?

  • xipetoltec 6·4·13

    There is far too much regulation on everything. It’s not the big criminal owned places that would suffer anyway, but the smaller restaurants. If you are worried about what you are being served stay at home. You don’t have to go out and eat.

  • Guano 6·6·13

    Wouldn’t it be easier to develop a device/app or litmus test for EV olive oil? Then those restaurants that do adulterate their oil can get caught and fined! If my gut feeling is right, lots of people would buy one if the price is right.

  • ElChefMed 6·7·13

    Dear all,

    Extremely important discussion.

    As a chef and prospective fine mediterranean restaurant owner, I say- this initiative would go right at the heart of my business model, and kill it. Just like it would kill señor Aris, a small genuine restaurateur in Spain. While cooking, I am using for years and will always exclusively use superior quality Extra Virgin Olive Oil for all my cooking. That of course includes the Olive Oil served on the table. In refillable, cute, regulalrly washed and refilled prime grade Localy produced, top quality marvelous Olive Oil from my mediterranean island. As a local product, it will be poured from 5 liter canisters, just as Chef Aris is doing in his restaurant. If this regulation was put through, I would have to use inferior quality and expensive industrial type, “Extra Virgin Olive Oil”, from far away, maybe even cheaper, but of a generic type, often of suspicious credentials, because of Big Businesses fraud!

    I recommend people to educate themselves. Any well versed restaurant-goer will immediately be able, just by the smell of it, before adding it on his food, recognize junk “olive oil” from the heavenly taste of the real stuff. This has been a test for the establishment for me for years- try their olive oil on a piece of bread they serve- you will have unmisteakable lead of the quality- or othervise- of the establisment.

    Above mentioned test with Olive Oil and bread is your best bet to make a distinction between a genuinely excellent place and a fake cheap eatery.

    Europe has lost it’s prime position in the world exactly because of OVERREGULATION! It is killing small businesses all across the continent, and supports the livelihoods of the ones who have brought us this mess – political elites, bankers and their servants. At the expense of Señor Aris, honest and dedicated restaurant owner, whose livelihood probably depends on it’s success. Or otherwise.

    Don’t let our traditions and genuine taste’s of all the foods we consume fall into oblivion.

    Just to be replaced with generic commercial profit- making lie the multinationals are trying to sell us in their shopping malls and soulless and tasteless grand- supermarkets, in exchange for their extra profits, at the expense of the quality of our lives and our health.

    For the ones genuinely interested in preserving tradition, support SLOW FOOD:

  • Guano 6·7·13

    I saw a Belgian movie “Brasserie Romantique (2012)” where besides the comedy, the chef in the restaurant blended two different wines to re-create the taste of a premium wine and sold it to a couple dining there. I think this must happen in real life too. In India, it is common for some restaurants to keep empty water bottles for purpose of re-filling them with filthy indian tap water and they even reseal the cap with a lighter. Do I go in restaurants thinking something dodgy is in the works? Hell yes. I avoid eating out unless it’s a get together or something.

    I can see where the EU is coming from in regulating premium EV olive oil sold in restaurants. It’s sad that because of a few bad apples, we need to regulate every restaurants. But as a consumer I want to be protected from fraudsters,

  • david 6·7·13

    Are you people nuts? All the arguments the author stated and summarily dismissed are all very valid arguments. It is utterly ridiculous that a restaurant can’t seve anything but what favors mass production.

    If you really are that OCD about your olive oil do what you do…carry a “discreet tin of high quality olive oil”.

    Somebody writing this without thinking this absurd says it all….

  • Jeffrey Breaux 6·8·13

    “The virtue of this argument is difficult to understand because large producers would have very little to gain from the proposal” In my opinion, not true at all. Large multinationals such as Unilever would have everything to gain or at least in Greece, where they produce oil under the brand Altis. Altis gives prominence on shelf space in supermarkets here to their refined blended olive oil over that of their EVO. Special tamper proof bottling to market to every taverna in Greece would give them a perfect opportunity to further promote their cheaper blend of refined and extra virgin oil, which they more than likely have large stores of since it has a longer shelf life than EVO (a year and a half as compared to one year for EVO) Anytime Altis makes an appearance on TV cooking shows here in Greece (which is quite frequent – daily actually), they promote what? Their EVO? Nope…..their blended product. Cheaper and more of it to sell for a profit. It’s almost a type of “tastes like chicken” argument in favor of the cheaper blended stuff. Let me tell you, I’ll be the first in line to complain about the pathetic small cruets of rancid olive oil in just about every taverna in the Greek islands on the tourist track. I have also tasted my share of many a Greek salad that was dressed with a blend of corn or sunflower oil with EVO because the owner of whatever place was trying save pennies in the wrong area of his business. Is any of it right? Absolutely not. Is what the EU proposed an improvement? In my opinion, absolutely not. Unfortunately there always seems to be a corporate subtext in just about every piece of EU food legislation which does more harm to the idea of “local and sustainable” than good. To many in Greece and other olive oil producing countries of southern Europe, the argument is more symbolic of what’s wrong with the EU politically as a whole, hence the outcry. It’s not at all far fetched to see this as nothing more than another example of ” Here we go again with the northern countries telling the southern countries what to do so that they have nice oil for their dipping bowls when they are on summer holiday on the Mediterranean.” A year or so ago you wrote a BRILLIANT and very much needed article for the Atlantic on the EU’s labeling regulations on olive oil (which I subsequently gave copies of to many Greeks I know that have their own small holdings of olive groves that produce for family consumption). You’ve lost me with this one.

  • Jeffrey Breaux 6·8·13

    I just realized it was Sara Jenkins, your daughter, who wrote the Atlantic article. My apologies for the error.

  • Jeffrey Breaux 6·9·13

    It’s not a matter of having it one way or another.
    To quote Yotam Ottolenghi on the matter: “This is ridiculous”.
    Regulation is just more of the same ridiculous stop gap attempts which are symptomatic of a very broken system in Brussels. Let individual member countries figure it out for themselves. I side with the Brit MEPs that declared there are bigger fish to fry (but can we be sure of the origin of the oil we fry them in?)

  • Guano 6·9·13

    Is Yotam Ottolenghi even European? Lets stick to Europe please and not bring Israelis in this debate. He’s a half-baked chef with half-baked ideas and a tv-show so appalling that we didn’t see any sequel or heard from him again (which is a good thing). Also the problem is not about bigger fish to fry either. People’s brain don’t solve one problem and then another, in some stupid sequential manner. Tackling EVOO fraud is important and falls under Consumer Protection. Who in the right mind would not want that?

    • pierino 6·9·13

      Just a thought, but could we drop the term EVOO from the conversation? The coinage originates with Rachael Ray who is clueless on the subject. E.g. she said, “people ask me all the time what ‘extra virgin’ means. That just means it’s unfiltered (with an eye roll and a hand jive).” That’s not even remotely close to what it means. Using EVOO is a plausible example of Social Darwinism.

  • Kikkerbillen 6·11·13

    The legislation is silly. It is effectively the same as telling restaurants they can no longer sell unlabeled table wine and must now only sell more expensive wines from Castello XYZ. The author may abhor cheap olive oil, but I suspect the same folks who are happy to slurp up table wine at €2 a glass are also not that perturbed by dipping their bread into a cheaper grade of oil. As long as the restaurateur is not representing the oil as Extra Virgin then there is no misrepresentation and hence no economic harm.

    Face it. A whole heck of a lot of people don’t have the money to go to expensive places. If they’re satisfied with a cheap meal….. then fine. That’s their budget and that’s their prerogative. This thing is so blatantly driven by the bigger producers.. it’s no wonder it got shot down. Why on Earth would the EU seek to prohibit one product (oil) but leave the same vinegar bottle sitting on the table (or ketchup, or mustard, or sea-salt, etc) is beyond me. Clearly there was a laser focus on only one food group and I’m sure we all know exactly who was behind it.

  • Dolores Smith 6·16·15

    The regulation should not have been stopped. It would have led to greater awareness by both restauranteurs and consumers about the issue of poor quality, unhealthy oils.

    As an importer of highly pure olive oils I can state that have visited restaurants in the past where I have been shocked at the quality of oils used in their kitchens. Needless to say, I avoid going to restaurants (with the exception of the few that use my oils.).

    From my experience the majority are not interested in using higher quality oils. The consumer does not ask for them directly.

    I took my mother out last year to a very nice bistro in Toronto, asked for the oil and vinegar separately to dress my salad without the addition of any additional ingredients I would not know of. Was so shocked when I tasted the oil alone that I actually gagged – and I have taken courses where I had to taste defective oils. As a test I paired it with the vinegar – the vinegar created a palatable combination and people would never know..

    Keep in mind that the media continuously offers tips for purchase that will not protect consumers such as harvest year, best-before-dates, dark bottles, etc., without discussing the changes in texture and flavour according to quality… and, many chefs in general do not study the nuances of olive oil quality nor experience an exquisite flavour and texture from really pure, low oxidation and low-degraded fat oils made possible by modern, leading-edge extraction machinery and know-how… the extra virgins at the lowest end of oxidation and degraded fat become as clean-tasting and complexly fruity as fruit juices.

  • Dennis Lurgio 1·9·16

    When we go out to have dinner with family and friends we take our own award winning Dell’Orto Extra Virgin Olive Oil with us. As an importer and distributer of quality olive oil I have been unable to sell to restaurants. The reason, it’s too expensive!!