Debate rages over adoption of Australian Standard

Debate rages over adoption of Australian Standard

The Australian Olive Oil Association, which represents distributors of imported and domestic olive oil in Australia, has lodged a complaint with the country's competition watchdog over a publicity campaign from growers body, the Australian Olive Association.

The AOOA has claimed an ad push by the growers' association encouraging consumers to buy Australian olive oil is "misleading" and contacted the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission.

The AOA, which represents Australian olive producers, has asserted Australian consumers are being "duped at the checkout" because "nine out of ten imported olive oil brands fail the Australian standard".

"Testing by the Australian Olive Association between September 2011 and August 2013 found that, of 106 imported oils tested representing 40 different brands, 77% of oils tested failed the Australian Standard AS 5264-2011 and 93% of brands tested failed the Standard for at least one product of their brand range," the olive growers association claimed.

The AOA added its findings echoed those of a study carried out by consumer advocate Which?.

The industry body has launched a national campaign to "educate consumers" about the "benefits" of Australian olive oil. "Fronted by well-respected nutritionist Dr Joanna McMillan, the Buy Australian Olive Oil campaign promotes Australian Extra Virgin olive oil as the fresher, healthier, tastier olive oil."

AOA CEO Lisa Rowntree said: "We have been lobbying for two years for imported olive oils to comply with the Australian Standard and now the AOA has taken the only option available by directly educating the public."

However, the AOOA insisted the message is "inappropriate, anti-competitive and misleading advertising".

Speaking to just-food, AOOA president David Valmorbida said: "Our organisation has strong concerns regarding certain inaccuracies within this material which is purported to be factual. Specifically, the AOA campaign focusses on the premise that olive oil produced in Australia is "fresher, tastier and better for you". We refute these points."

Valmorbida argued claims Australian olive oil is "fresher" and "healthier" are "completely untrue".

"Olives are only ever harvested once per year during winter months, therefore the freshest olive oil from southern hemisphere countries like Australia is first available on shelf around July, while the freshest olive oil from the northern hemisphere is available around February and will be naturally fresher than Australian-made olive oil that is on shelf at the same time.

"Country of origin alone is not a determinant of the health benefits of olive oils. Olive oil has often been attributed with a number of reported health benefits, particularly due to the high percentage of mono-unsaturated fats found in all olive oil and also due to bioactive compounds such as polyphenols found in particular in virgin olive oils. These characteristics are equally true of olive oils from around the world."

He also suggested claims that "90% of imported brands have failed the Australian standard" are "misleading and irrelevant". Valmorbida said the AOOA has worked in with the International Olive Council to develop internationally recognised standards for quality.

"The international standard covers over 95% of the world's olive oil, was established by a UN-mandated body and is vigorously managed and policed by the IOC as well as being self-regulated by producers, distributors and by annual sampling programs conducted by organisations like the AOOA. The Australian standard, by comparison, is a voluntary standard created by a group within the Australian growing industry and subscribed to by a minority of brands in Australia. Their standard could be considered to be a lesser standard in that it significantly departs from and in some cases does not even match critical elements of the international standard," he suggested.

The AOA has been pushing to have Australian standard mandates ahead of international standards. However, Valmorbida suggested, that could result in "the creation of trade barriers" that would "undermine Australia's obligations under WTO rules".
"We believe the imposition of the current Australian Standard would be to the detriment of the Australian consumer for the benefit of a few Australian producers. It would lead to a decrease of choice and an increase of the price of olive oil at the shelf for the Australian consumer."

The ACCC declined to comment on the complaint when contacted by just-food.