US olive oil pushing government to test imported oils

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The provision backed by California lawmakers would have allowed the Agriculture Department to extend mandatory quality controls for the domestic industry to imports. The bill’s language would have allowed government testing of domestic and imported olive oil to ensure that it was labeled correctly.

That testing, intended to prevent labeling lower-grade olive oil as “extra virgin” or from fraudulently cutting in other types of oil, would be much more comprehensive than what imported oils are subjected to now.

But the language was stripped from the bill when it reached the House floor, an effort led by lawmakers from New York, where many of the country’s olive oil importers are based. They had the backing of food companies and grocery stores that use and sell olive oil.

The floor fight broke down to one between East Coast and West Coast lawmakers. Republican Rep. Doug LaMalfa, a farmer from Northern California, suggested that labels for imported oil should say “extra rancid.”

“What we’re after here is not to cause problems for our friends who would like to market it. It’s more just the truth in advertising that’s necessary,” LaMalfa said.

New York Republicans said new testing standards would cost importers millions of dollars. Republican Rep. Michael Grimm of Staten Island, New York, said his Greek-American and Italian-American constituents know good oil and haven’t had problems.

“It’s not rancid,” he said. “There is always going to be a problem in every industry, but this is nothing more than a multimillion-dollar earmark,” he added, using the term for special provisions that sometimes are inserted into legislation.

In the end, the final farm bill signed by President Barack Obama earlier this month was silent on olive oil.

But a nonbinding statement accompanying the bill encouraged the Agriculture Department, the U.S. Trade Representative and the Food and Drug Administration to “remove the obstacles that are preventing the U.S. olive oil industry from reaching its potential.” It cited a 2013 U.S. International Trade Commission report that said international standards are widely unenforced and allow many varieties to be mislabeled and possibly even adulterated.

The report also cited subsidies for European olive oil producers and tariffs as barriers to the domestic industry’s success.

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