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U.S. olive oil producers press for import standards (w/video)

  • This photo taken Feb. 12, 2014 shows California Olive Oil Council Executive Director Patricia Darragh posing with a collection of California olive oil at the All Things Olive shop in Washington. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

WASHINGTON — Need olive oil? American shoppers are more likely to pick a European brand, which is cheaper and viewed as more authentic than U.S.-produced olive oil.

But U.S. producers contend that "extra virgin" olive oil from Europe may not be as pure as you think. They've asked the federal government to intervene by imposing stricter standards on the imports, which now make up 97 percent of the market.

Olive oil production is steadily growing, and the domestic industry says it has gone from 1 percent of the national olive oil market five years ago to 3 percent today. Most of that is in California, though there are smaller operations in Texas, Georgia and a few other states.

U.S. producers are seeking to build on that growth in a struggle reminiscent of the California wine industry's push to gain acceptance decades ago.

They've mounted an aggressive push in Washington, holding olive oil tastings for members of Congress and lobbying for stricter standards on imports. The strategy almost worked last year when industry-proposed language was included in a massive farm bill passed out of the House Agriculture Committee.

The provision backed by California lawmakers would have allowed the Agriculture Department to extend mandatory quality controls for the domestic industry to imports. The bill's language would have allowed government testing of domestic and imported olive oil to ensure that it was labeled correctly.

That testing, intended to prevent labeling lower-grade olive oil as "extra virgin" or fraudulently cutting in other types of oil, would be much more comprehensive than what imported oils are subjected to now. Extra virgin olive oil is considered to be the highest quality.

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