I needed a nice bottle of olive oil. We had moved across the country in January and were now in month three of the COVID-19 pandemic — my expectations were lowered enough that homemade pesto sounded like an extravagance. Helplessly bound to my own demographic profile (“buy local!” “spend a little more and buy quality!”), I found myself driving 25 minutes to the suburbs outside of Buffalo, all the way to a boutique olive oil store called Prima Oliva.
Inside, the store telegraphed its status in the same way a boutique cigar or wine store would: medium-roast wood shelves and plenty of negative space. The olive oils were stored in small stainless steel drums (fusti), each with a small tap. A small laminated sign hung from each drum featuring varietal information and tasting notes. The shop owner took an empty glass bottle from a wall of them and filled it up with arbequina olive oil. The quality of the olive oils were, in part, guaranteed by a robust standard called Ultra Premium. As I found out later, Ultra Premium extra-virgin olive oils had to satisfy 33 parameters, including production, taste, chemistry, and more.
The small shop in the western New York suburbs looked incredibly similar to one I had been to when I lived near Berkeley. In the shadow of the Claremont Hotel was a store with the same dark-wood shelves, polished stainless drums of olive oil in the center, a wall of bottles ready to be filled, as well as small drums of vinegar and flavored oils along the sides. I didn’t realize it at the time, but this wasn’t a coincidence: The Berkeley store was owned and operated by Veronica Foods, an olive oil distributor that supplies Prima Oliva (along with 700 other stores), and whose focus on quality has ruffled feathers in the olive oil industry.
“We consider ourselves a small player,” says Leah Bradley, Veronica Foods’ CFO. “In the quality arena, we’re a giant, but in the olive oil industry, we’re small.” Veronica Foods’ focus on quality can often feel opaque to the regular consumer, with tables detailing information on polyphenols, free fatty acids, diacylglycerols, and more. But Bradley was right about their position in the industry: total U.S. olive oil consumption was around 362,000 metric tons in 2019; Veronica Foods supplied a little under a percent of that. Yet the company, and its Ultra Premium extra-virgin olive oil standard, has been able to corner a large portion of the boutique olive oil store market — and from this position, it was part of a much larger debate on what constitutes quality extra-virgin olive oil.
Veronica Foods was founded in 1924 by an Italian immigrant in New York City and moved to Oakland, California, in the 1930s. In the mid-1990s, the olive oil distributor set out to build an international supply of extra-virgin olive oil. According to Extra Virginity: The Sublime and Scandalous World of Olive Oil by Tom Mueller, the company was swindled by a trader in the early ’90s who supplied it with adulterated olive oil (olive oil mixed with a neutral refined oil), prompting it to begin scouring olive-growing regions for quality product. Veronica Foods even bought its own olive oil mill in Tunisia where it could store oil in silos topped off with nitrogen. The company now imports over 1 million gallons of olive oil from suppliers around the Mediterranean, California, Argentina, and the Antipodes and supplies them to stores across the United States and a handful of other countries.
Those stores are the only part of the Veronica Foods chain that the consumer will see. The brand is effectively masked to the end consumer because it’s a distributor — Veronica Foods imports olive oil and also buys olives directly from producers to produce extra-virgin oil at the company’s Tunisia mill. It sells to the stores with which it’s affiliated. In exchange for being a Veronica Foods olive oil exclusive seller, stores get access to training, educational seminars on topics like olive oil chemistry and vocabulary, and marketing material. Veronica Foods’ website stresses that these stores “are not franchises,” stating that they do not charge fees or commissions.
Even though Veronica Foods deals directly with olive oil producers it identifies as meeting certain quality parameters, after its mid-1990s debacle it took additional precautions to ensure its olive oil wasn’t adulterated. In Extra Virginity, Mueller describes how Veronica Foods CEO Mike Bradley tried to go to the FDA and the California Department of Food and Agriculture to take action against those passing off fake olive oil, to no avail. The onus of finding and ensuring quality would have to fall upon Veronica Foods.
The company created its 33 quality parameters as internal standards to make sure all the olive oil it purchased met its specifications. Around 2013, Veronica Foods began to market its internal metrics as a seal to highlight to the consumer the difference in quality found in single-cultivar imported olive oil. “We created the Ultra Premium standard for the consumer,” Bradley says, even while noting their internal standards predate the Ultra Premium standard. “It highlights what we’re selling as so different from everything else in olive oil. It exceeds all the world standards.”
Veronica Foods was aggressive in making its claim to quality. When it launched the standard, its website claimed that “the absurdly low standards created and fostered by numerous trade associations and government agencies responsible for policing them has only contributed to the confusion and misinformation [around olive oil]” and that “The UP standard is reserved for the finest extra virgin olive oils in the world.” It pointed out that it wanted to distinguish Veronica Foods olive oils from the “broader category sold in mass markets the world over under thousands of brands and private labels.” In short, supermarket oil this was not. However, the company didn’t clarify that Ultra Premium was invented by and applied only to Veronica Foods’ olive oils.
Others in the olive oil industry accused Veronica Foods of subterfuge for marketing its seal as a certified standard, claiming that a seal-based standard had to be available to other brands. If a standard only applies to your own products, it’s more akin to a marketing trademark. In 2016, a few years after the standard launched, the North American Olive Oil Association (NAOOA) sued not only Veronica Foods, but also seven New York State-based stores that stocked Veronica Foods olive oil.
In the lawsuit, the NAOOA argued that the Ultra Premium designation was the sole intellectual property of Veronica Foods. Even if another other olive oil producer met all the 33 quality parameters, it could not apply for or display an Ultra Premium seal.
The NAOOA further alleged that Veronica Foods’ Ultra Premium standard was a “self-created designation used exclusively by VFC and its retailers to sell VFC olive oil.” The organization also claimed that its members, which include large multinational companies such as Colavita, Cargill, and Goya, were being targeted by Veronica Foods’ marketing. This marketing included claims that supermarket oils weren’t as fresh and had no health benefits when compared to oils in the Veronica Foods supply chain.
“[It’s] remarkable what they have done. I love the shops, and they’re great at getting consumers excited about olive oil,” NAOOA executive director Joseph R. Profaci says of Veronica Foods. But, he adds, there was “no reason to denigrate other products.” As Profaci puts it, it doesn’t make sense to declare that “unless you buy handpicked olive oil, you’re not getting the benefits.”
But the belief that artisan products provide more benefits came out of an olive oil marketplace rife with adulteration, false claims to quality, and misleading labeling. In Extra Virginity, Mueller found that a “Made in Italy” label on a food product offers an opportunity for fraud: People are generally willing to pay more for Italian products. According to a study from the Italian farmers association Coldiretti, Made in Italy counterfeiting, in which counterfeit labels are applied to products, was a 60 billion euro a year industry. (Even though the Italian government has stringent regulations around the Made in Italy designation, the problem has gotten so pernicious that it implemented blockchain technology as a potential solution.)
Veronica Foods’ experience with adulteration wasn’t in a vacuum: part of the desire to claim quality comes from the myriad controversies relating to legitimacy. However, an equally important impetus comes from the connection between olive oil and health.
Prior to the 1980s, olive oil was a niche product, popular among Italian immigrants and those interested in authentic Mediterranean ingredients. (The American diet was increasingly antithetical to fats of any kind.) Then, in 1985, studies from the University of Texas Health Science Center and other organizations found that monounsaturated fats — like olive oil — could, in fact, lower cholesterol levels. An article announcing this study in the Personal Health section of the New York Times even included a small accompaniment for readers about how to choose the best olive oils. It showed a slight preference for extra-virgin olive oils — a category of olive oils extracted by mechanical methods (no heat or solvents) and qualitatively determined to be free of defects via a taste test — saying that they have “distinctive flavors” from “top-quality olives.”
The idea of healthy food is particularly prevalent in the United States — a nation that spends the most on health care yet has the lowest life expectancy and highest chronic disease burden when compared to other high-income countries. These lagging indicators are nestled in a culture of toxic individualism where small choices in diet (good fats! Bad fats! Keto!) have an undue burden of importance with health outcomes.
Starting in the 1990s, the idea of olive oil as a health food found a home in the Mediterranean diet trend, popularized by figures such as Dr. Walter Willett at the Harvard School of Public Health. Olive oil trade groups also began to take notice. In the early to mid-1990s, the International Olive Oil Council began to fund Oldways Preservation and Exchange Trust (a nonprofit dedicated to improving public health by popularizing “old ways” of eating) conferences to the tune of $2 million a year. These conferences were often attended by food journalists, cookbook authors, and people from the restaurant community.
Simultaneously in the early ’90s, small producers such as McEvoy Ranch and the Olive Press in California began to produce boutique artisan olive oil, selling at prices that were comparable to bottles of fine wine. This effectively created a new market: expensive and healthy extra-virgin olive oil.
In 2010 came a study that solidified the inferiority of supermarket olive oils in the eyes of the American consumer. The UC Davis Olive Center, a branch of the university that brings together scientists and agricultural specialists to, as stated in their mission, “address the research and education needs of California olive growers and processors,” released a study that sampled 14 imported supermarket brands and five California brands of olive oil. Researchers subjected them to tests of taste and chemical profile. The center had a bombshell of a conclusion in its executive summary: Nearly 70 percent of the imported supermarket brands failed the sensory tests, and their chemical tests found that these failures could be attributed to oxidation, poor quality from damaged or overripe olives, or adulteration with cheaper refined olive oils. The study was picked up immediately by the media. Outlets couldn’t resist a good pun: The LA Times headlined its article with “Lab tests cast doubt on olive oil’s virginity,” while CBS News wrote “Nothing Extra About Imported Extra-Virgin Oil.”
The NAOOA was livid. After the Olive Center published its story, the NAOOA sent out a press release stating that the UC Davis study was “causing confusion among consumers,” with then-president Bob Bauer saying that “imported olive oils are authentic, high-quality products.” Ten years on, the frustration over at the NAOOA lingers. “It was inappropriate,” says Profaci, who points out that the chemical tests found no adulteration. After the study was picked up by the news media, it was difficult to convince consumers that imported supermarket oils were not adulterated. Moreover, the NAOOA, with its portfolio of large imported supermarket brands, felt like it was being unfairly targeted by a study supported, in part, by the California olive oil industry. “The damage has been done. There are a gazillion stories about fake olive oil on the internet because of these studies.” In any case, as Profaci pointed out, “olive oil has a two-year shelf life and these studies are 10 years old. The quality of olive oil in the market today is far superior than what it was 10 years ago.”
Dan Flynn, executive director at the UC Davis Olive Center, agreed, telling me that “the lots vary with time” and that “for consumers to know what the quality is right now, there needs to be another study.” Nevertheless, he added that they’ve never been challenged by another study on the results of the 2010 report.
While Veronica Foods’ internal standards predate the UC Davis report, its Ultra Premium standard was published and launched just over five years ago (though the Ultra Premium website was registered in 2012). The marketing materials used by Veronica Foods — and even the Ultra Premium standard — can be seen as an outgrowth of the coverage that came out of the UC Davis study. But Veronica Foods was hardly alone in the creation of its quality seal. The NAOOA has its own seal to ensure freshness and quality that seal came out of the UC Davis report, Profaci told me. It was meant to provide proof that the olive oil is real — not in any way adulterated. The difference between the NAOOA seal and the Veronica Foods seal is that the former was developed by a trade group and not a single company. A trade group’s seal can be applied to multiple products from different companies, and as such, it doesn’t fall into the category of trademarked marketing materials.
Other trade organizations have their own quality seals. The Extra Virgin Alliance created one. The Australian Olive Oil Association has one, as does the California Olive Oil Council. That same libertarian streak that leads Americans to try to solve their health with food also means that regulation is fast and loose. Every organization of extra-virgin olive oil producers and distributors will make the same claim: Their olive oil is fresh and healthy, and of the highest quality.
The case between the NAOOA and Veronica Foods was eventually thrown out on a technicality, though it found new life and was reinstated in late 2018, the same year the FDA announced that it would allow olive oils to be labeled with a “qualified-health claim” that it was a heart-friendly food. By 2020, the litigation had been settled, leaving the terms of the settlement confidential. Profaci and Bradley were bound by silence — the terms meant that they are unable to discuss the case further. But the Ultra Premium standard still exists, albeit with a caveat. Veronica Foods’ marketing material now makes it clear that UP only applies to extra-virgin olive oils distributed by Veronica Foods. Meanwhile, the company continues to expand. It now supplies stores in Canada, Mexico, Taiwan, Guatemala, and Nicaragua, in addition to the United States.
The NAOOA is lobbying the FDA to create an established definition of virgin and extra virgin, and to state what tests should be done to establish purity and quality. Like wine, cheese, and the organic-foods industry, extra-virgin olive oil resides in a vague and poorly defined world of claims about health and caliber. The grocery store can’t be trusted. Quality claims on labels are often grounds for litigation. There seems to be little hope for someone who wants to have healthful and flavorful olive oil without having to conduct extensive research or enter a standalone boutique store.
There might be another way. I posed a question to Dan Flynn: If he could choose one label to put on a bottle of olive oil, what would it be? “Harvest date is important,” he told me. “You get more antioxidants the fresher the oil is. They will decline with time.” Leah Bradley agreed. “It’s a critical piece of information that is not normally available to the consumer,” she said. Seal or no seal, Veronica Foods argues its olive oil is of higher quality because of this: It’s able to source olive oils every six months by switching between northern and southern hemisphere sources.
But perhaps there is some hope for those who don’t want to pay boutique prices for a bottle of what is essentially the fatty juice of the olive fruit. I took a look at the back of my bottle of California Olive Ranch EVOO purchased from the supermarket and there it is, printed on the back: a harvest date. I count the months on my hand, and I can breathe a little bit easier. The quality just might be there.
Nishant Batsha is a writer of fictions and histories. His writing has been published in the Offing, Narrative, and the Believer among others. He lives in Buffalo, New York. Vicente Martí is an illustrator and visual artist.
Fact-checked by Dawn Mobley