Via Huffington Post, the Journal of Food Science reported in its April issue that olive oil is one of the most adulterated and diluted agricultural products on the market. No surprises there – olive oil fraud is one of my favorite topics. It was also the main theme of a pretty awesome book last year, Extra Virginity: The Sublime and Scandalous World of Olive Oil, by Tom Mueller.

I perceive that there are two reasons for the increasing media attention to fraud in the olive oil industry:

1. Food provenance is increasingly important to consumers. (See “Pink Slime”)

2. Domestic production is ratcheting-up to become a dominant force in thew world olive oil market.

Also in the news on Friday, Pompeian Olive Oil became the first olive oil importer to use the new USDA Quality Monitoring Service logo on its extra virgin olive oil products. Much like the “USDA Organic” seal, the new rules will create a special mark that may be applied to qualified olive oil products.

This has been the second time in recent history that the USDA has tweaked the standards for olive oil in an attempt to prevent fraud. In October of 2010, the USDA introduced new standards for classifying grades of olive oils. If I can overcome my reflexive disdain for new regulation, stricter quality parameters are a good thing. For the US olive oil industry to compete with cheaper imports from say, North Africa, they will have to do so on the basis of quality, purity, and freshness. Federal standards will allow domestic producers to define the “other”.

My one criticism is purely practical. It will be tough to build a brand for the new certification mark as an indicator of quality  if no one is marketing the symbol itself. So far no coordinated marketing campaign has been launched to tell us how the symbol represents useful information to the consumer. It took me a while just to Google around to figure out what this mark even looks like.

There is no point to using symbols to sell product unless someone takes the time and money to explain its utility to the consumer, which is how brands are made. The USDA won’t spill the dough to market this seal of approval. If an olive oil business went through the expense, they would just create a hold-out problem for themselves.  Though I hope to see this symbol tell consumers the difference between the real deal and the biodiesel, I’m skeptical.