Oils ain’t oils – why extra virgin olive oil is so important to Australia

Australia’s finest extra virgin olive oils were on display at the inaugural Fresh Extra Virgin Olive Oil festival (FEVOO) located at The Sydney Mint earlier this month.

Featuring the likes of well established brands such as Cobram Estate and Pukara Estate, as well as smaller boutique olive growers such as Cradle Coast Olives in Tasmania, there was no shortage of quality offerings at the event.

The festival celebrated the high quality olive oil which has become synonymous with the Australian industry, and educated the audience on the value of quality extra virgin olive oil.

An expert panel consisting of Dr Richard Gawel, Dr Leandro Ravetti, Dr Johanna McMillan, Stephanie Alexander and Professor Rod Mailer discussed the importance of supporting the Australian olive oil industry, associated health benefits and the issue of adulterated oils.

At a tasting masterclass conducted by Dr Richard Gawel – an Australian extra virgin olive oil tasting panel leader, the audience learned how to identify and appreciate a wide selection of oils and indentify the tones that distinguish quality oil from adulterated and rancid oils.

The impact of imported and adulterated oils

Gawel explained that Australian consumers in general are more likely to choose an imported brand of olive oil over a quality Australian brand, despite no significant price difference.

A major challenge for the industry is to effectively communicate to the public that Australian olive growers produce some of the best olive oil in the world.

“Sometimes I go to the supermarket and pull the stuff off the shelf and taste them and think this is just garbage and wonder what the hell policymakers around the world are doing,” said Gawel.

“If they think these olive oils are good they’ve got rocks in their heads.”

Gawel explained that Australian growers use a mechanised process to collect the olives which increases production capacities and minimises errors in processing, where as in Europe most of the work is completed by hand and as such is far more labour intensive.

According to Gawel, a percentage of the olive matter in many European operations tends to not get separated from the oil during production and subsequently, settles to produce a sludge which starts to ferment and consequently produces a less than perfect product.

Extra virgin olive oil by definition is the highest quality and most expensive olive oil classification. It should not contain any defects and has to pass an official chemical test as well as a sensory evaluation by an experienced tasting panel.

Gawel also explained that many imported oils have been found to be adulterated with seed oils, yet still hold an “extra virgin” claim.

Recently Malaysian based MOI Foods were issued with two infringement notices by the ACCC totalling $20,400 for misleading claims on the company’s Mediterranean blend oil. The oil was labelled as 100 percent extra virgin olive oil, but was found to contain 93 percent canola oil.

One of the main challenges for the Australian olive oil industry surrounds production standards.

The Australian Standard for Olive Oils and Olive Pomace Oil, AS 5264-2011 were published in July 2011 following a rigorous standard development process involving a significant number of industry stakeholders and over 800 public submissions.

The standards were created to protect the integrity of the entire olive oil supply chain with an emphasis on the consumer.

The new Australian Standard for Olive and Olive-Pomace Oils

  • Clearly outline different grades of oil – whether fresh or refined
  • Unambiguously define what constitutes extra virgin olive oil
  • Include the most current and effective testing methods for quality and authenticity
  • Provide a technical basis for ‘best before’ claims
  • Provide labelling requirements to minimise consumer confusion
  • Crackdown on misuse of the words: premium, super, pure, light/lite, extra light/lite
  • Require substantiation of words describing country/region of origin
  • Require substantiation of processing methods (e.g. cold pressed, first extraction)
  • Accommodate the natural variations that occur in different countries, olive varieties and regions, without compromising the ability to test and verify quality

While the standards are very comprehensive and have been widely adopted throughout the Australian industry, they are voluntary, meaning that they are not applicable to every olive oil on supermarket shelves.

Gawel stated that the Australian olive oil industry has been fighting an uphill battle so to speak when it comes to differentiating genuine extra virgin olive oil with cheap imitations.

Gawel believes that education is at the forefront of the issue, and it is only through increased public awareness that the Australian extra virgin olive oil industry will continue to thrive for years to come.


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