The bad news for supermarket shoppers is that half the oils on test – most of which are imported from Italy and Spain – don’t meet the widely accepted International Olive Council (IOC) trade standard for “extra virgin” (see Jargon Buster and results table). The tests we used are designed to check for signs of fruit damage, poor harvesting operations, poor storage of fruit or oil before processing or bottling, refinement (such as bleaching or deodorising) or deterioration due to ageing or poor storage of the bottled oil.
A number of the producers of oils that failed presented us with evidence that the particular batch of oil we tested met extra virgin requirements at the time of bottling, but our test results found they weren’t extra virgin at the point of purchase. This suggests that ageing or less-than-ideal storage conditions and handling after bottling is often to blame. Extra virgin olive oil deteriorates with time and exposure to excess heat, oxygen and light.
FoodWorks and Aldi are taking steps to rectify problems along the supply chain, while Ollo and Red Island have strengthened internal production processes to avoid quality issues. But distributors and producers of other oils that failed our tests have not indicated they will take any action.
- Whether issues with olive oil quality occur during production, transportation, storage or at the retail level, the fact remains that consumers aren’t always getting true extra virgin quality at the point of sale, despite paying a premium.
- The Australian Olive Association (AOA) recently signed an agreement with Standards Australia to produce an Australian Standard for the olive oil industry covering all olive oils sold in Australia, which should be implemented in the next six to 12 months. Work is set to start on this in July.
- While this is a step in the right direction, CHOICE wants “extra virgin” to be regulated under the Food Standards Code, with mandatory requirements that all olive oils labelled “extra virgin” meet basic purity and quality standards for the duration of their expected shelf life, as well as carry a suitable date so that consumers are able to choose the freshest oils.
Other tests reveal "extra virgin" flaws
- In 2009, the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) identified three imported olive oils labelled “extra virgin” – Paese Mio Organic, Aigeon and IGA’s Isabella brand – that failed to meet the IOC standard. This led to court-enforceable undertakings that, for three years, the companies involved would undertake more testing to demonstrate their products’ compliance with IOC standards before hitting supermarket shelves.
- Earlier that year, IOC-accredited Modern Olives Laboratory Services in Victoria reported more than half of all extra virgin olive oils in the Australian market don’t belong to this category. While less than 25% of the 52 Australian oils it tested weren’t extra virgin, more than 80% of the 51 imported oils tested failed to meet extra virgin requirements as a result of being poor quality, too old and/or refined.
Choose the freshest oils
An oil’s aromas and flavours are at their peak when it’s young. According to the AOA, most extra virgin olive oils retain freshness for at least 12 months if stored properly in sealed bottles in a cool, dark place. Unlike wine, olive oil does not improve with age – so the closer to its production you use it, the better. Unfortunately, current labelling requirements don’t help you choose the freshest oils. Most brands give only a general best-before date, if at all.
- The IOC suggests a best-before date indicating the “minimum durability” of the oil, although how the date is calculated is at the discretion of the producer or importer.
- The AOA recommends a scientific approach to measuring shelf life and determining a best-before date that’s specific to an individual oil.
Date of bottling, harvest or production would be more helpful for consumers but not necessarily feasible or precise, according to industry, as oil may be a blend from different years and held in a tank for an extended time before bottling.
In the meantime we suggest you choose oils with a best before date at least 12 months away, and avoid purchasing oils that are displayed under direct sunlight or in an overly warm environment.