To call a spade a spade

To call a spade a spade


09/26/2014 - Mercacei offers the opinion of Carla Marano Marcolini, Esther López Zafra and Manuel Parras Rosa, members of the University of Jaen, on the information that is provided to the consumer in terms of the descriptions and definitions in the field of olive oil.
What's in a name?, said Shakespeare's play Romeo and Juliet. A rose by any other name would smell as sweet. This allegation of Shakespeare can be verified it in the field of food. It is true that a high quality food product is hardly going to lose its fantastic organoleptic qualities by renaming it. Then, why in recent times the use of certain terms in the food sector is being regulated? We could say that this is so in order to comply with what has been called "consumer protection", which began to take shape in Article 51 of the Spanish Constitution of 1978 and it was reflected in Article 2 of the General Law for the Defence of Consumers and Users, which warned that it is a right of the consumer to receive accurate information about products and services, and even education and training on its use and enjoyment of these products. We could say that for years this has been something that has been reflected only on paper, because there are many cases we know where there have been attempts to mislead consumers with false references on the label or even "disinformation" campaigns.

We talk about cheating, but we can also speak of omission, or otherwise excessive information when naming and defining a product, to the detriment of the consumer, who never gets to know or understand fully what he is about to eat. Of course, the consumer trusts in the power of the Administration to regulate, not only in extreme cases of fraud where the content does not match with what is stated in the continent of the product, but also in the descriptions and definitions that identify food although sometimes can be quite confusing to the average consumer.

However, it seems that the efforts of the Administration are not being enough to end up this confusion. See the example of olive oil, which for many years contemplated terms such as "pure olive oil" for an oil composed of a mixture of refined and virgin olive oils. Needless to say, the word "pure" has connotations that are far away from the description of a "mixed" product. Note that this term was already removed in 1987, with the publication of the Regulation (CEE) 1915/87. Despite this change, which we consider very positive when we look at the legislation and regulations on descriptions and definitions of olive oils both in Spain and in Europe, we realize that things have not improved much, despite of all the years that have passed by and the growing concern for the interests of consumers, a feature which can be read in all recitals of these regulations.

This makes us believe that good intentions exist, but sadly they do not extend beyond those lines. As an example, we can look at the denomination still compelling today which names the category of olive oil (composed of a blend of refined olive oils and virgin olive oils), which has been under the following name: "olive oil-contains only refined olive oils and virgin olive oils." Those 11 words are not the definition of the category, but a sales description that obviously, is too long, repetitive and difficult to perceive and remember for the average consumer. In fact, we still call this product "olive oil" and therefore there is no difference between this name and the generic term used when refering to all olive oils. Because yes, this is true, we all colloquially call it "olive oil" and we put in the same bag all qualities, something quite unfair to those extra virgin olive oils of the highest quality or, as experts say, the real "olive juices" . But what is the solution? Is it possible to change these names and definitions, otherwise so rooted already in the mind of the consumer?

Recently there have been important changes in other food industries, which for years have also been affected by the same problem of confusion between its categories by consumers. We are talking of Iberian pork products. On January 11th of 2014, the Royal Decree 4/2014 was published in which, among other things, established that to distinguish different categories of ham there will be inviolable precincts of different colors:

- Black: 100% Acorn Iberian Cured Ham.

- Red: Acorn Iberian Cured Ham.

- Green: Iberian Cebo de Campo Ham.

- White: Iberian Cebo Ham.

Transferring these changes to our industry, olive oil, we must say that including the exact percentage of how much virgin olive juice contains each product (we speak, of course, of "mixed" olive oils) has to be considered, but this is just a suggestion. In fact, some time ago there was another suggestion based on a system which differenciated qualities of olive oils by a number of olives, the kind of way the stars appear in hotels.

To identity, the basis of product differentiation
In any case, what matters is that the competent Authorities and the industry must be aware of the importance of bearing in mind the consumer when defining and promoting such a high quality product. Because, as we said at the beginning of this article, even if the product does not lose its magnificent organoleptic qualities only by changing the name, it can lose its identity, the basis of product differentiation. And this is crucial in a market economy, in which having a name associated to an image in the consumer's mind is key to the survival of the product against an increasingly fierce competition.

In this sense, new trade rules in labeling approved by the California Department of Food and Agriculture become effective today, in which the following designations of olive oils are collected, Extra virgin olive oil, virgin olive oil and refined olive-oil-blend composed of refined olive oil and virgin (extra or virgin) olive oils. It also prohibits the indications on the label that may mislead the consumer such as, "Pure", "Pure Olive Oil", "Lite", "Lite Olive Oil", "Light", "Light Olive Oil", "Extra Light", "Extra Light olive oil", "Extra Lite" or "Extra Lite olive, oil will not be used" and "Super Virgin".

Surely these were not the problems present during the sixteenth century in Juliet Capulet's mind, when she said the phrase with which we began these lines. But things have changed a lot, so we better start calling everything by its name.

Carla Marano Marcolini, Esther López Zafra and Manuel Parras Rosa.
University of Jaén
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