California is the first state in the nation to create quality standards for its olive oil producers, a key step toward growing the industry.
The state's Department of Food and Agriculture approved a set of rules last week that California's olive oil producers must abide by before labeling their bottles as extra virgin, virgin or refined.
"What this new standard means is that when the consumer goes to the store and buys a bottle of extra virgin olive oil from California, they will know that's exactly what it is," said Vincent Ricchiuti, olive grower and producer of the award-winning Enzo Olive Oil. Enzo Olive Oil is produced by the Ricchiuti family, operators of the Clovis-based P-R Farms.
"In the past, some of the imports and even some of the domestic producers have marketed their oil as extra virgin, but they have not been entirely truthful," he said.
In the olive oil world, extra virgin is the highest quality oil and fetches a premium price. But farmers and industry leaders say research by the University of California has found that some of the imported oils, labeled extra virgin, contained lower quality oils.
To set themselves apart, California's industry took several steps. A majority of the state's olive oil producers voted to create the Olive Oil Commission of California, an organization devoted to research and creating grades and standards for oil quality. Those standards, which take into account numerous factors, including flavor, acidity and aroma, were approved last week by the state and take effect next Friday.
The central San Joaquin Valley is home to several olive oil processors, including Enzo, Bari Olive Oil in Dinuba, Fresno State, Cullen Creek in Sanger and Rosenthal Olive Ranch in Madera.
California's new regulations apply to any handler of olives processing 5,000 gallons or more and who sell it commercially. Those producing less than 5,000 gallons do not have to comply.
Legislators also supported the move for grading standards.
"These new standards will clearly communicate to consumers the quality and authenticity of product being produced in California," said Sen. Lois Wolk, D-Davis, chairwoman of the Senate Agriculture Subcommittee on Olive Oil Production and Emerging Products.
But the state has also faced criticism from those who say the standards were hastily put together and do not mesh with commercially accepted standards in the U.S.
Kimberly Houlding, executive director of the Clovis-based American Olive Oil Producers Association, disagreed.
"These are the most stringent standards in the world," she said. "And California is taking the lead in creating them. We are trying to move the industry forward."
Although the state is home to nearly 400 olive oil producers, it remains a minor player in the global production of olive oil. At least 97% of the olive oil sold in the U.S. is imported, including from Italy and Spain.
And as more consumers use olive oil for its health benefits, California's olive oil producers have responded with increased production.
During the 2013-14 harvest, California's olive oil makers produced 3.5 million gallons. The previous harvest year they made 2.4 million and the season before that, 1.2 million.