AFI Association of Food Industries

AFI Serving the U.S. Food Import Sector

2021 NAOOA Report

Marco de Ceglie
Filippo Berio

I’m pleased to address you for the first time as the newly-elected chair of the NAOOA. I’m fortunate to have a long and varied experience in the olive oil industry and I hope my new role will enable me to solve what I consider a confounding contradiction. Americans rank “olive oil” the healthiest cooking oil--indeed one of the 10 healthiest foods we can eat, yet less than half of U.S. households actually use it.

We know there are several reasons for the gap between consumers knowing that olive oil is healthy and them actually using it. Clearly one of the biggest obstacles is all the misinformation that circulates in the media, such as the exaggerated prevalence of “fake” olive oil and that olive oil is unsafe to cook with. The NAOOA has worked over for many years to dispel these myths and will continue to do so. Indeed, we see signs we are making inroads. Negative reporting is sharply down and more and more articles are written assuring Americans what those in the Mediterranean region have known for thousands of years: virgin olive oils are safe for cooking. 

Another obstacle is one I discussed recently at a virtual event hosted by the Italian Embassy. The olive oil industry is comprised of good, better and best segments, yet the different segments of the category seem to be constantly at war with one another. Some high-end olive oil producers, instead of focusing on the positive attributes of their products, go low and disparage any oils that don’t meet the highest and exclusive standards. While those that do are only a small percentage of the high-end producers, their create disruptive conflict within the industry—and confusion among consumers. And producers of supermarket oils too often are dismissive of the important role the high-end oils have in elevating the entire category.

Truth is, there is ample room for all segments and grades of olive oils in the American cupboard.  The sooner the industry can unite behind this concept, the better we will do vis-à-vis the true competition: other, less-healthy cooking oils. In this regard, regular and light-tasting olive oils have an important role to play. These healthy and economical products can be an easier transition into the category for consumers accustomed to neutral-flavored, solvent-extracted seed oils. We know from experience these regular olive oil users will graduate to healthier, more-flavorful extra virgin over time. That’s exactly what happened in northern Italy and in Spain, where extra virgin olive oil now dominates markets that were previously dominated by the lighter grades.

Similarly, specialty olive oils, like many other high-end products, are wonderful and also have an important role to play. If you can afford it, who wouldn’t want to drive a Ferrari, wear bespoke clothes and use $50 estate-bottled olive oil when you cook? Keeping with the automotive analogy, Ferraris and similar exotic cars are the ones that create the mystique and allure of driving…which benefits the entire category. It is not “Ford vs. Ferrari,” it should be “Ford plus Ferrari.”

The industry should focus on doing what it takes to provide what people want and need: more, affordable, genuine and sustainable olive oil. The scientific consulting firm Exponent found that just a 20-percent increase in adherence to a Mediterranean-style diet, of which olive oil is the cornerstone, would save our country $20 billion in healthcare costs. And while generally speaking, the more flavor an olive oil has, the greater its health benefits, the reality is that every grade of olive oil is packed with heart-healthy monounsaturated fats. 

Closely related to the matter of accessibility is keeping olive oil affordable. While there’s certainly a place for capital-intensive estates producing splurge-worthy bottles, most acreage must still necessarily be devoted to cultivating olives for reasonably priced oil that can be enjoyed by everyone. For this to occur, leaders in government and industry should not lose sight of the need to develop and sustain large-scale olive oil production and should not impose unnecessarily restrictive production and quality standards.

Finally, sustainability is important if we want to produce more olive oil in the years to come. The good news is that the International Olive Council has already shown that olive oil production has a net positive benefit for the environment through the absorption of carbon dioxide. We believe even more can be done through sustainable farming techniques and industrial and distribution platforms. We would be wise to use our collective energies to grow the entire olive oil supply chain in a sustainable way.

Our goal needs to be olive oil for all people. High-end, limited-production olive oil is a great segment of our industry. It can also be a great way to promote the entire category. It celebrates the richness of olive oil’s history and traditions and highlights the many different varietals used to create this surprisingly diverse food. For this reason, among others, last month the NAOOA voted to create a subsection for specialty olive oils, an idea I have strongly supported. But that doesn’t mean all olive oil needs to be—or indeed, should be--the highest possible quality. For olive oil to reach its fullest reach and potential as a category, we have to have more of it, the vast majority of which needs produced in affordable and sustainable ways.

Going back millennia, olive oil has been a food for all people – and we should strive to keep it that way.

Association of Food Industries: Serving the U.S. Food Import Trade Since 1906
3301 Route 66, Ste. 205, Bldg. C • Neptune, NJ 07753
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