The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) has just fined an olive oil producer for inappropriately labelling a product as "extra virgin olive oil". However, there's no nationally mandated standard for what can be described as "extra virgin". What's going on?
Picture by Smabs Sputzer
Even non-foodies like myself know that "extra virgin" is a premium branding, but the definition is not actually set in stone or strictly enforced under Australian law. However, as the ACCC explains:
Although there is no mandatory standard for extra virgin olive oil in Australia, it is widely accepted that it is the highest grade oil obtained from the first press of the best quality olives, that it is not blended with other oil and that there are no solvents or refining in the manufacturing process.
An investigation into seven brands of oil sold in Australia suggested that one, Oz Olio, did not meet the broad requirements outlined above, showing a higher level of free fatty acids indicative of being an inferior product. Oz Olio's producer, the Big Olive Company, has paid $13,200 in infringement notices.
There are some evident commercial machinations here. The ACCC kicked off its investigations at the behest of the Australian Olive Association, which does have its own "Australian Extra Virgin Olive Oil" certification program. Having products which don't meet this more general standard removed from the market arguably improves the value of the AOA certifications. Despite the fine, the majority of the oils tested did meet the standards needed, regardless of their origin.
If you're extremely fussy about olive oil, you'll doubtless have your own favourite suppliers. If you're just picking up oil for the kitchen, let your tastebuds be your guide, and remember that the "extra virgin" labelling isn't on its own an absolute guarantee of quality.