Harvest reports from the major olive growing areas around the world indicate a significantly smaller crop in 2014, and combined with the steady growth in demand for extra virgin olive oil, the news has experts expressing concern about a shortage of top quality olive oil.
This year's harvest of 2.56 million tons appears to be about 20 percent lower than last year's, and more importantly, falls well below the 3 million tons consumed last year.
"As with all agricultural products, olives and olive oil are subject to the whims and vagaries of nature," says Ann Sievers of Il Fiorello Olive Oil Company, who makes olive oil for some of the top names in the Napa Valley. "Here in Northern California, there are many concerns not only about the size of the crop, but also the constant issue of the olive fly. It looks like our harvest will be just a bit below last year."
Sievers predicts that if the production of extra virgin oil drops sharply this year, then basic economics predicts that prices for top quality oil will increase. "It's going to become even more important that consumers know how to read an olive oil label, so they know what they are getting," she says. "You'll want to look for a certified extra virgin olive oil—the highest quality grade of olive oil. Extra virgin olive oil has a natural balance of fruitiness, bitterness, and pungency, and cannot be adjusted or adulterated."
The University of California at Davis and the California Olive Oil Council certify domestically produced olive oils. This certification is a two-part process and is based on 1) a chemistry test to prove that it is a true olive oil with specific chemistry profiles and 2) a master taste test to prove the balance of fruitiness, bitterness, and pungency.
Each oil must pass both parts of the certification process to be called extra virgin, per the certification label on the bottle.
"Olive oil is a perishable product," Sievers says. "Reputable producers indicate on the label when the olives were harvested and milled. A 'best before' or 'use by' date doesn't tell you when the olive oil was made. This is going to become even more important during this shortage. Last year was a big production year, and there still may be some of that oil making its way into the market. Olive oil degrades over time, and a stale oil won't taste the same."
Fraudulent activities have long been a problem in the olive oil world, Sievers notes. "As a consumer you should be skeptical about the actual quality of any product, especially when its price seems too good to be true. The secret is to know your product and its source. Look for the seal which indicates the producer not only made a good oil but cared enough to follow the rigorous process in California standards to certify the oil as extra virgin olive oil."