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From olive oil to virgin. In the end, however, it remains lamp oil.

Coop's Prix Garantie olive oil now listed as "Vergine" (Photo: Master of Olive Oil)
Coop's Prix Garantie olive oil now listed as "Vergine" (Photo: Master of Olive Oil)

After Manor and Migros in 2018, Coop is now the third major Swiss retailer to introduce a virgin olive oil into its range. The Basel-based cooperative's "Prix Garantie" product is weighted towards a fifth-grade olive oil. While Manor, for example, downgraded the product La Aldea de Don Gil from Aceites Aroden Hispania and Migros downgraded the olive oil of its private label M-Budget from "Extra Virgin" to " Virgin", Coop followed the opposite path and upgraded the "Prix Garantie" olive oil.

Not many consumers are aware that besides "Extra Virgin" there are also olive oils that are labelled "Virgin". This is not a special fact, as in the past there were hardly any " virgin " olive oils to be found in the Swiss market. What the country's best-known retailers stocked on their shelves was, with few exceptions, always of the highest quality. At least that is what the product labels said. Occasionally, there were so-called " refined oils" (which were actually mixtures of refined and virgin olive oils and were advertised primarily as cooking oils). But no retailer could ever have imagined listing a second-grade olive oil - because not a single customer would ask for it. And it is customer demand that ultimately counts, the retailers say in agreement.

«Virgin olive oil? This option is incompatible with our quality standards.»

- Pierluigi Tosato, in his former office as Executive President of Deoleo S.A.

But the idea survives all doubters

At the end of April 2018, as part of my interview "What next for Bertolli & Co?"[1], I asked the then Executive Chairman of the world's largest olive oil bottler Deoleo S.A., the Venetian Pierluigi Tosato, whether the introduction of regular "virgin" olive oils could be a valid solution for the world market leader Deoleo. The internationally celebrated food manager, who had already managed Bolton Foods (Rio Mare tuna) or Acqua Minerale San Benedetto, replied dryly: «This option is incompatible with our quality standards.»

Well, the rest is history, I could now put here. However, I think that it is precisely this history of the development of the market that you should know in detail. It is, in fact, very promising and can, in purely theoretical terms, be superimposed on many other product groups or branches of industry that have been croaking for a change for a long time but have never been able to experience it until now either because of fear or ignorance on the part of the responsible decision-makers.

Pierluigi Tosato, the man who had selflessly pulled the olive oil colossus Deoleo out of its downward spiral, called the olive oil market a suicide model, consistently strived for quality to save Deoleo and tried to give the company a new DNA, was fired as CEO in spring 2019 [2] after the company had reported a minus of 291 million euros in 2018 due to numerous cleaned-up past burdens [3]. Tosato still remained on the oil giant's board of directors until the end of November of the same year [4] and helped the company, which by then faced a huge mountain of debt totaling €575 million, reach an agreement with the banks, which allowed the company to continue operating. [5]. After completing this mission, Tosato accepted a mandate as a member of the board of trustees of the Lucerne-based IOF - International Olive Foundation [6].

Holding this position, Tosato made the following statement upon the publication of the results of the largest and most complete olive oil study in the world to date, which revealed that out of 184 olive oils labelled "extra virgin", only 21% deserved this quality designation [7]:

«The disappointing 21% of the identified samples that are proven to be extra virgin olive oil represent, in my experience, the actual production volume in the main olive oil producing countries. [...] It is only fair that we start calling the majority of olive oil on offer what it really is, namely virgin olive oil or, more simply put, "Vergine". "Extra virgin" remains a rarity.»

- Pierluigi Tosato, current member of the board of trustees IOF - International Olive Foundation

Tosato, who has deep insight into the industry, must know. "Extra virgin" is a rarity. It is hard to find because hardly anyone is capable of producing genuine "extra virgin". This is not necessarily due to a lack of know-how, but to the blatant price pressure exerted by the trade. No money, no quality, that's a simple formula! It is therefore hard to believe that the M-Budget olive oil, which marked the price entry at Migros until spring 2018, should have been of the best quality. Migros at some point must have come to the conclusion to declassify the product and to offer it only as virgin olive oil. It is likely that the decision of the largest Swiss department stores' chain, Manor, to also downgrade an olive oil [8], motivated the giant orange retailer of Zurich's Limmatplatz to follow suit and to be the first really large retailer to introduce a " virgin " olive oil [9]. Obviously with success. For almost three years now, the word "Extra" has been missing from the cheap M-Budget one-litre plastic bottle.

M-Budget olive oil from Migros: Formerly extra virgin, now only virgin (Photo: Master of Olive Oil)
M-Budget olive oil from Migros: Formerly extra virgin, now only virgin (Photo: Master of Olive Oil)

It is allowed for virgin olive oil to be defective. But only up to a certain perceptible intensity.

This is good for the market, as this downgrading has led to a certain relaxation. The price difference from the cheapest to the most expensive " extra virgin " listed by Migros has been considerably reduced by the introduction of the " virgin " olive oil. But the listing of the " virgin " olive oil is also a clever move for Migros itself, as it is now officially allowed to buy olive oil with sensory defects. For "virgin" olive oils, slight to moderate sensory defects are indeed allowed.[10] Migros takes advantage of this generously. Too generously, as has been proven. The above-cited IOF study on olive oil quality in the Swiss retail trade also examined, among several other olive oils, the M-Budget " Virgin " olive oil. It turned out that the low-price Migros oil was so severely defective at the time of the test that even the label " Virgin " became a fraudulent label. M-Budget would have belonged to the category "lampante oil" and would therefore have been unsuitable for human consumption.[11]

Coop improves presentation

Migros' biggest competitor, the Coop cooperative located in Basel, now also stocks a " virgin " olive oil. However, for this it has not swapped an "Extra Virgin", but a product of the fifth quality class. Coop's claim is obvious. Firstly, it does not want to be a backrunner and secondly, it does not want to be considered lower quality than Migros. Coop has, of course, already announced this step. A few years ago, the then olive oil buyer at Coop, whose name I should not mention here because Rodrigo Wangler is still alive, told me at the Olive Oil Award ceremony of the Swiss Olive Oil Panel at the ZHAW that Coop would soon be introducing a " virgin " olive oil. Such market-relevant news is always heard in Wädenswil at the Swiss Olive Oil Panel, the place where - I believe - plans are made and agreements reached between producers, traders and wholesalers. Anyhow, in my opinion, it took a while for Coop to come up with a "virgin" olive oil.

Initially listed in light-coloured plastic bottle. Coops Virgin Olive Oil (Photo: Master of Olive Oil)
Initially listed in light-coloured plastic bottle. Coops Virgin Olive Oil (Photo: Master of Olive Oil)

But at least it's here now. Coop has caught up with Migros. Initially, Coop listed the new " Virgin " olive oil in a light-coloured pet bottle and did not print the declaration as required by the regulation, but then improved and changed to a darker and slightly more modern-looking pet bottle and adapted the declaration. In addition, a pink cap is now protecting the content. It looks kind of pretty and I like it way mor than the M-Budget packaging.

In terms of quality, however, I have come to the conclusion that the two oils from the wholesalers are similarly bad. In my opinion, they both simply do not deserve the name " Virgin ". I think that Coop, like Migros, has bottled a lampante oil instead of a virgin olive oil. Of course, this saves costs. Taking a closer look and applying the current law [12], this practice would be called "fraudulent labelling".

Attractive packaging. Lousy content. The Coop "Prix Garantie" Virgin Olive Oil. (Photo: Master of Olive Oil)
Attractive packaging. Lousy content. The Coop "Prix Garantie" Virgin Olive Oil. (Photo: Master of Olive Oil)

However, the two big retailers in Switzerland do not want to know anything about fraudulent labelling. At Migros, no other product is checked as closely as olive oil. On the occasion of the publication of the results of the biggest olive oil test ever, Migros spokesman Marcel Schlatter said the following to SRF's consumer magazine Espresso [13] (screen recording SRF Espresso):

«Because we don't look at any Migros product as closely as we do the olive oils, we can today safely claim that if it says extra virgin on the label, it's extra virgin in the oil. But it is clear that where work is done, mistakes can happen. But these are isolated cases. And I can really assure you that we look at the products so closely that the margin of error is at the lowest possible level.»

There is no question that it is to be seen as progress that the major distributors are willing to label their cheapest olive oils as "virgin" olive oils and that they are accordingly refraining from the claim that everything must always be of the first quality class. This is an important step in the right direction. Now the only thing missing is the correct and consistent implementation, which means that olive oils declared as "virgin" must not in fact be "lampante".

Still, one thing is already clear today: by relabelling inferior oils from "extra virgin" to "virgin", traders run less risk of being inspected by the cantonal food authorities. Thus, these products should also be safe from investigation in the latest nationally organised control campaign called "Gottardo", the results of which are eagerly awaited. Good for Migros and Coop. Shit happens for consumers.




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