An Inside Look: Industry Truths From An Olive Oil Sales Person

Posted by Hannah Broaddus
An Inside Look: Industry Truths From An Olive Oil Sales Person
Tell the truth, tell the truth, tell the truth.
                                  - Sheryl Louise Moller

This quote struck me when I started reading Eat, Pray, Love a number of years ago.  I still hear it in the back of my concious.

Since I started working for Centra Foods and dove head first into the olive oil industry, I've heard it a lot, replaying in my head.  It's the real reason why I give such candid advice, and why, at the end of the day, I just want to point you in the right direction, teach you something, and answer your questions sincerely.

Many of you know me, you read the blogs that I write, but you still may not have an inside look at the olive oil industry-- the world that I live in day in and day out.  

I'd like to invite you inside now; it's a complex, interesting world in here.

Olive oil fraud does exist.

It's been proved time and time again that fraud in the olive oil industry exists.  

People always want a lower price.  Any consumers or purchasing managers that are willing to turn a blind eye will be able to find a supplier that will get them a substantially (and unexplainably) lower price on their ingredients.  They won't be able to come to Centra Foods for this, but it is out there.  

Why does this still happen?  I'm assuming because it's human nature, or perhaps "corporate nature" because profit margins are important.

Olive oil is not the only industry this happens in; it's common with many raw ingredient industries, like coffee, vanilla, maple syrup, honey and milk.

Tom Mueller, the author of the book Extra Virginity: The Sublime and Scandalous World of Olive Oil, has really helped to expose some of this fraud over the last few years and bring it into public knowledge.

Bottom line: Oil fraud is out there. We've pretty much all gotten to the place where we can agree on that.  3 years ago, I was discussing this with a restaurant owner in Colorado who beligerantly disagreed that this issue could ever exist.  "If this is such a real problem, why am I not hearing about it on CBS News right now?", he said.  

Thank goodness we're past that point now, so that we can all start working on making it better.

In My Opinion, It Is Getting Better

Personally, I believe the attention this issue receives is helping.  I see and hear of less adulteration in the industry today than I did 3 years ago.  

How do I know?  Sometimes I can see by the prices other suppliers are bidding.  If we know that we've been outbid, sometimes a customer will offer to have us try to meet or beat that price.  If we know there's no possible way that we could beat the new price they're getting, nor could our own olive oil suppliers, the actual manufacturers, we know what's probably going on.  I see that less often recently.

In addition, more companies with bad practices are being named, and fizzling out.  The North American Olive Oil Association sued one brand in 2013 for mislabeling olive pomace oil as pure.  Looks like they should have learned to tell their customers the difference between pomace and pure olive oil!

Adulteration scandals are not tied to a particular location of olive oil supplier; both domestic and international suppliers are capable.

No matter if you work with a domestic or an international supplier, you're at the same risk for receiving adulterated olive oil.  What will really protect you is how strong your relationship is with the business, the quality documentation you receive, and the businesses own transparency.  

Laws that require testing at the ports won't necessarily help.  Any olive oil supplier who would knowingly have the gumption to sell adulterated oil can simply mix canola or soybean in at their own facilities.  

It's frustrating, I know.  But trust your gut feeling when you're dealing with a new supplier-- both the business owners and the sales people.  Normally, you know deep down if they're trustworthy at heart or not.

There's a war between Californian and imported oils.

If you didn't know this, it's real, and can I feel the undercurrent all the time.  And it's really sad and unfortunate, because there's so much passion for the olive oil industry on both sides.  

Californian growers take the stance that they want to promote the highest quality Extra Virgin Olive Oil-- bring the rest of the US up to their standards for what qualifies as "real" olive oil, in a way.  But they don't mean "real" as in adulterated with other oils or not-- they mean "real" as in is it Extra Virgin, or is it a different grade that is otherwise subordinate. This stance, though good for the gourmet retail sector, doesn't fit too well in reality for many food manufacturers.  The other grades of olive oil are still olive oil-- they come from the olive, but they're just all made and processed in different ways.

Importers, for the most part, are usually good people that want to share the oil of the world with the US.  Centra Foods imports because we need to, to be able to sell our customers a physical product.  We couldn't supply our manufacturers oil for more than a month if we used only the US supply of oil, nor could any other supplier in the bulk oil industry.    

Other retail brands are imported because they want to share the oil of their ancestors, or because the prices are cheaper.  And price is not just an objective indicator of quality--  low prices on imported oils are also a result of the extreme abundance of supply that's available internationally; Spain produces 50% of the world's olive oil, while the US produces 2%.

Personally, I see no need to war.  I hate conflict anyways.  California produces amazing olive oil.  Uh-mazing.  If you're in the manufacturing industry though, chances are, for a number of reasons, you'll probably still want to buy an imported oil.

The good people are in this business because they're passionate about it.

People on all sides are passionate about olive oil.  It's something that you can be passionate about. Isn't that great?

I had lunch with Tom Mueller back in January of 2012.  We went to Panera Bread.  Of course, it was 2 1/2 years ago now, but he said something that stuck with me.  It was along the lines of, 'as I was writing Extra Virginity, I kept researching and interviewing, and more stories kept cropping up... These stories of the industry, the farmers, the fraud-- they really needed to be told'.

 I feel proud to work in an industry where people care, so much, about what they're doing.  Go Tom, go.

Misunderstanding about olive oil is everywhere.  Get informed, but back up the info you get with multiple sources.

There's so much confusion!  For example,

  • Do you know the difference between Olive Oil and Extra Virgin Olive Oil?
  • Why is the term "pure" written on some bottles and not others?  
  • How are all the other grades of olive oil (other than EVOO) produced?

Can you answer all these questions?  If not, start asking!  As a buyer, it's important to ask questions, and not settle for vague answers.  Get informed, and ask two sources if you can, in case one of them is misinformed themselves.  

It's important for you to understand your own industry; that will guide you to the right supplier.

Not every olive oil supplier is right for every industry.  If you work for a company like General Mills, you need to work with a supplier to food manufacturers.  If you own an olive oil and vinegar store, you need to work with a supplier who caters to your specific industry.  

If you want to be pointed in the right direction, this article is the best, most honest advice we can give.

A Note On Being Authentic

Being authentic is important to us, and especially important to me.  Our motto is Simply Authentic (I didn't write that, I just walked into that one).  I have pushed for that motto to remain, after conversations about making a change.  I liked it, because it felt truthful to me, about who Centra Foods is.

The words Simply Authentic speaks to something even deeper than olive oil authenticity to me.  Being authentic also means to be honest, and to be real.  To be true to who you are.  That means offering products that are honest and real.  Building a team of people that are honest and real.  Offering customer education and advice that is honest and real.

And today, this is me being honest and real.  Tell the truth, tell the truth, tell the truth... Right?

Topics: Industry Trends



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