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The test panel on the categorization of virgin olive oils

Virgin Olive Oil and Extra Virgin Olive Oil are the only agri-food products that legally require an organoleptic assessment

Thus, the distinction between the commercial categories “Virgin Olive Oil” or “Extra Virgin Olive Oil” requires the use of the olfactory and gustatory senses for the corresponding organoleptic evaluation. This is based on a panel of tasters and is regulated by the International Olive Council (IOC) and consists of an organoleptic tasting for which establish a series of requirements such as the number of tasters, training, training, etc., aimed at making that method, in theory, be as objective as possible and avoid human error.

The test panel is mandatory at European level according to the Regulation of the European Commission on the characteristics of olive oils and olive pomace oils

In Spain, this European Regulation has been developed through the Royal Decree that establishes the basic regulation regarding the panels of scavengers of virgin olive oil.

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Variability in results

However, in practice the panel test has shown that it has serious problems due to variability of results.

Numerous cases have been found in which the same sample offers very different classifications according to the tasting panel that values it

In other words, a packer labels an oil according to the category determined by a panel of tasters and, in a subsequent inspection carried out or in studies carried out by consumer associations, another tasting panel can give another totally different result.

According to European legislation, the discrepancy in the valuation is a reason for sanction, which translates into the legal insecurity of the industrialists, given the subjectivity of the test panel

The packaging companies and exporters are responsible for the product packaged until the end of its useful life (date of preferential consumption). However, it must be taken into account that olive oil is a product that may lose some qualities over time and for which it is very important to take into account the appropriate storage conditions (heat, light, etc.) to which is submitted.

This variability of results has provoked, in Spain and in other countries (USA, China, Brazil, etc.), that after tastings made to bottles bought in lineals of different supermarkets, there has been accused of “fraud” to the Sector of olive oil, when in reality it is a matter of organoleptic perception, that is, the taste of each person or each panel or a problem of deterioration of the oil over time.

The consequences of unfairly qualifying this discrepancy as “fraud” disproportionately damages the image of olive oils

Also, such variability in the results of the test panel results in the company responsible for the product a serious risk not only economic but – and this may be even more important – to its public image and its prestige. Damages that, in the end, seriously damage the reputation of Spanish olive oil and cause great confusion in the national and international consumer.

In addition, the industrialists emphasize that Spanish olive oil importing countries take advantage of the subjectivity of the results of the panel, in those occasions in which their products compete with the Spanish.

Behind the attacks in markets like the US and Australia have been against the quality of imported oils is the interest in positioning their own oils, low yields and higher prices

“Subjectivity” found

The packers wanted to demonstrate the subjectivity of the method and for that reason ordered a study to the company PriceWaterHouseCoopers in 2013, which shows the variability of results in the same oils analyzed.

In the study, 500 samples of edible virgin olive oils were collected and sent to the 15 Official Panels recognized by the International Olive Committee and by the Ministry.

From the study to demonstrate the variability of the organoleptic evaluation, it is highlighted that in 27.3% of the oils in the sample, the official panels gave different values

In 11% of cases there was a change of opinion when sending the same sample of oil in two different moments of time to the same Official Panel, so there are two different qualifications for the same oil sent. The study allowed to demonstrate that, in some case, the sample sent later was better valued than the one sent in the first place.

The conclusions of this study are particularly important when the current EU regulation on organoleptic evaluation is punitive in the packaging industry, depending on the opinion and the test result

Therefore, the industrialists assert that it is an “outrage” to speak of “fraud” when it comes to a problem of organoleptic perception. In order to solve this issue they have been working for years with the objective of implementing measures with the sector and with the Public Administrations that will remedy this situation.

Sources: ANIERAC and ASOLIVA

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