Italian has been known throughout the world as the language of olive oil, due to the know-how of Italian branded oil companies as well as their marketing and internationalization policies. For some time, however, there has been a heated debate around the origin of the raw materials used. This has caused serious image problems for the most established Italian brands and, in some respects, for the entire Italian oil sector.
The Media’s accusation (especially the foreign media) against the producers of Italian mass-market brands is that of marketing blends of Mediterranean extra virgin olive oils by leveraging on the Italian character. Digging deeper, however, it becomes clear that the marketing strategy in support of an Italian mass-market brand is not aimed at deceiving the consumer about the origin of the product but rather at capitalizing on the added value of that all-Italian know-how in the agri-food sector.
To begin with, according to EU legislation it is obligatory to have the origin of the raw materials on the label. In the case of a blend of Mediterranean oils, the origin can be either EU (mainly Spain, Italy, Greece and Portugal) or EU + third countries (mainly Tunisia, Morocco, Turkey) depending on whether the oil was exclusively produced in the EU or also in non-EU countries.
In the Unites States the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) requires that the countries of origin of the raw materials be written in detail on the labelling.
In addition, it should be noted that the much-maligned “blending”, or “coupage” in the wine industry, is an important marketing practice that allows, through the skilful combination of extra-virgin olive oils of different cultivars and origins, to adapt the organoleptic profile of the product to that of the target consumer (with particular reference to the fruity notes, but not only).
It is unthinkable that a mass-market label could use only Italian oils as the Italian production is barely able to satisfy a third of the total needs of the branded companies.
Companies have had to compensate this production deficit by importing a large quota of the raw material and will continue to do so unless the modernization of the existing olive groves is accelerated and an expansion plan is put in place that includes the Italian olive grove areas with new, modern and efficient systems.
This large-scale project can already count on the support of the EU through funds from the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) but it will not truly take off until there is something connecting all the components of the Italian olive oil supply chain, putting and defending the Italianness as a value at the centre.