In summary

Assembly Bill 535 seeks to regulate the use of the word “California” on olive oil labels, similar to existing regulations for California wine.

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By Alexandra Kicenik Devarenne, Special to CalMatters

Alexandra Kicenik Devarenne is a freelance olive oil consultant, writer and educator,

The California olive oil industry is not big — it produces about 5% of olive oil consumed in the United States — but it is important. At a time when increasing temperatures and drought are forcing change in California farming, olive oil is a great alternative to thirstier crops. Olive trees are thrifty, thriving in conditions that would decimate other plants. They also are good at carbon sequestration.

Olive oil is a healthy, minimally processed, delicious food that fits perfectly with plant-forward eating trends. It can also be, like wine, a unique value-added product, not just a bulk commodity. A bright future for olive oil in the California farm landscape would seem to be assured.  

Why, then, are we seeing a fight between the state’s largest olive oil brand, California Olive Ranch, and the majority of the state’s olive oil industry? It comes down to label transparency and fair competition in California’s olive oil industry — many people believe that if it says “California,” it should be 100% California grown. Period.

Assembly Bill 535, introduced by Assemblymember Cecilia Aguiar-Curry, seeks to regulate the use of the word “California” — and the names of geographical regions of California — on olive oil labels, similar to existing regulations for California wine. Recent amendments to the bill have watered down the original stipulation, which was that if it says or implies “California” on the label, it must be 100% California-grown olive oil. The current version of the bill says that if “California” is used on the label of a product containing non-California oil, it must list the percentage of California-grown oil in a similar size type. Although much weakened, this law is better than nothing and helps to shrink the loophole that has permitted imported oil to sell under a California banner.

A California-import mixture called Global Blend, sold under the California Olive Ranch brand, is at the center of the fight. The genesis of this California-import blend goes back to a product released in 2017. While the word “California” dominates the label, the actual origins — Argentina, Chile, Portugal and California — are listed below in type less than half the size, printed in green on green. Importantly, it sells for about 35% less than its 100% California product.

Samantha Dorsey, president of McEvoy Ranch, summarizes the issue succinctly. “California farmers comply with some of the world’s strictest regulations regarding labor, water usage, air quality and produce cleanliness,” she told me. “These regulations help protect our state’s natural resources, our incredible workforce and our consumers. But compliance is not inexpensive. When foreign crops are labeled with the California name and sold at lower price points, it undermines our ability to sell our domestic crop at its proper value.” 

Aguiar-Curry points out that the value of a “California” label belongs to all California farmers. “What’s happened is that the company has taken away our brand. They changed the product. If it was truly California, I don’t have a problem with it.” 

Barring the pursuit of new legislation on this issue, what can voters — and consumers — do? If your priority is price, there are lots of inexpensive imported products to choose from. But if you want to support domestic olive oil farmers, read labels carefully. Look for “100% California,” or California estate production information that identifies the farm.

If you are price conscious and comparing the 100% California with a California-import blend, consider this: The difference in cost for your daily 3 tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil (a good starting point for health) is about 36 cents per day. Is it worth undermining our California olive oil farmers for the equivalent of 20 minutes on a parking meter?

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