11th Greek Australian Legal and Medical Conference
Crete, Greece 2007

Athena’s Gift - An Australian Perspective on Olive Oil in the Modern World

Paul Miller

Introduction

In this paper I want to give you a brief outline of the developments in Australia with regard to olive oil production over the past ten years or so. I will try to put this into a current global context while looking to the future. I will comment specifically about some issues regarding olive oil chemistry, quality and trade and also outline our current understanding of some aspects of olive oil regarding its consumption and human health.

But first I want to reflect on the ancient nature of this product. Olive oil is truly the stuff of legends and it is referred to as Athena’s gift. Mythology has it that Athena defeated Poseidon in the vote over who would be the patron god of Athens because her gift – the olive tree - was more valuable than his – a salt spring. Olive trees also show up regularly in ancient art.

Olive trees and what they produce are an integral part of the culture and landscape in southern Europe and in countries in the Mediterranean region. Nowhere is this more apparent than in Crete which is covered in olive trees much like the countryside of southern Spain (Andalucia). I suppose it is therefore not surprising that Australia, with its southern European connections, is producing commercial quantities of olive oil nor that Australia now consumes more olive oil per capita than any other country outside the EU.

Context and Statistics

In recent times we have seen a rapid expansion in the planting of olive trees for commercial production particularly of olive oil in Australia. The appearance of all these trees – about 9 million to date – has caused some commentators to predict an oversupply of olive oil in Australia. By contrast my concern is that we do not have anywhere near enough trees to make the most of our opportunity and properly sustain an industry.

To put Australia’s industry into a global context we must consider global production and consumption figures.

Place Typical Annual Production Metric Tonnes of Olive Oil
World Total 3,000,000
Spain 1,000,000
Italy 500,000
Greece 150,000
Tunisia 50,000
Australia 2006 8,000
Australia 2012? 25,000

Note that olive oil production and consumption equal each other – what is produced is consumed. In general production and consumption are increasing by about 3% per year.

Australian consumption has expanded to about 32,000 tonnes per year which is a 5 fold increase from 6,000 tonnes per annum in 1984.

World olive oil production fluctuates from year to year depending on the weather conditions around the Mediterranean and their influence on production levels. For example, Spain produces somewhere between 700,000 tonnes and 1,200,000 tonnes of olive oil each year. Similar large variations in production occur in the other traditional producing countries.

In 2006 Australia produced about 0.3% of the world’s olive oil and by 2012 it might be producing nearly 1% of olive oil. This is a small percentage of a global industry that itself only produces about 2% of the world production of lipids for food – oils and fats.

However, there are significant quality differences between olive oils. High quality olive oil makes up at best about 20% of world production. Nearly all of Australia’s production is of this quality or better so Australia could in the near future be producing about 5% of the world’s high quality olive oil and that is the industry’s objective.

In Australia olive trees are grown in every State and Territory. Most of the olive oil production occurs at similar latitudes in northern and central Victoria, southern and central New South Wales, north and south of Perth in coastal Western Australia and in the south east of South Australia.

The olive industry has expanded in regions where irrigation water is available for the commercial production of olives. At the same time areas with dry summers and autumns are favoured to minimize the risk of fungal diseases of olives and to enable the manipulation of the water status of trees leading up to harvest and oil milling. The larger groves are also situated on topography that allows the use of large-scale mechanical harvesters.

As President of the AOA and also with business interests in olives in the major regions I have to be careful what I say but my favourite olive oil in the world comes from Tasmania. Some Tasmanian olive oils are exceptionally flavoursome and fruity. I think it is the cool usually maritime climate combined with high light levels that makes such Tasmanian products unique. One expert said that he would like Tasmanian olive oil to be to Australia what Australian olive oil will be to the world and I share this sentiment.

The increase in production of olive oil in Australia this century is shown below.

Australian Olive Oil production – Metric Tonnes p.a.

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In summary in 2006 Australia produced about 8,000 tonnes of olive oil from about 50,000 tonnes of olives. We estimate that there are about 2,500 olive growing businesses in Australia but 40 of these produce around 90% of the production. Already close to 50% of our olive oil is exported and has been for the past 3 seasons. This trend is expected to continue as the market for high quality olive oil expands around the world.

The Australian industry at its current size is headed for annual production of about 25,000 tonnes by 2012 and maybe 30,000 tonnes soon after.

(Since presenting this paper it has become evident that Australian production in 2007 was nearly the same as for 2006. This is the result of the drought and associated bad weather events such as frosts. Olive trees do bounce back from adversity so 2008 could see a dramatic increase to 15,000 tonnes of olive oil produced in Australia.)

Australia also produces pickled olive fruit known in the industry as table olives. Table olive production to date has been a boutique affair with 1,000 tonnes or so being our annual production. The issue for table olives is that they currently need to be hand-picked and it is difficult for Australian producers to compete with subsidized European farmers that have access to low cost north-African labour. There is however a market for premium quality table olives and some of our growers are successfully selling into this market. Should mechanical harvesting become an option then the production of table olives in Australia would expand rapidly.

The Driving Forces of Expansion of the Australian Olive Oil Industry

The expansion of the Australian olive industry is happening mainly in response to an increasing demand for high quality olive oil. The increased demand for olive oil is influenced by several factors:

With respect to the variation in production of olives and therefore olive oil from year to year it is worth reflecting on the fact that according to the International Olive Council only about 16% of olive trees in the world are able to be irrigated to any degree. Most olive trees are solely dependant on natural rainfall for their water supply.

Olive trees can survive very arid conditions but fruit production on an annual basis depends on trees growing shoots and flower buds for the following season at the same time as growing fruit for the current season. To do this requires a minimum supply of water and we find that this is best guaranteed with irrigation.

Other factors in regular production are that the trees are fed and that the olives are harvested in an effective and timely manner.

Features of the Australian Olive Industry in Comparison with Traditional Producers

Olive trees suit the Australian climate particularly the southern part of Australia where winter rainfall predominates and we have dry summers and autumns. The vast expanse of Australia means that despite being such a dry continent there are sufficient water resources that we can usually source the water needed to irrigate olive orchards. We then combine that with well drained soils that suit the use of large scale mechanical harvesting machines.

Australian agriculture is based on knowledge obtained from scientific research and is normally focused on mechanization and the use of technology to avoid labour costs and to be able to compete with most of the rest of the world where agriculture is highly subsidized. This technical base for farming means that we are well placed to develop and apply the farming disciplines needed to produce consistent and high quality yields of olive oil.

This is in stark contrast with the traditional producers most of whom are paid to farm whether they produce or not and who are motivated by tradition and lifestyle rather than or alongside quality and profit.

In Australia we harvest our olives with large machines that we have developed. We harvest after measuring the oil accumulation – using near infrared spectroscopy - to determine the optimum time to obtain the maximum amount of oil of the best quality. In southern Australia this happens during late April, May and June depending on the variety and locality. Our olives are crushed and the oil is separated usually within 24 hours of harvest. This is the key to producing extra virgin olive oil – oil as it comes from the olive – with all of the components that contribute to its unique flavour and special qualities.

In most Mediterranean countries the olive harvest is impossible to complete at the optimum time even with some mechanization. This is either because of tradition – Christmas vacations and ingrained practices – or because there are simply too many olive trees of one variety for even a cheap labour force to deal with on time. Most olives in those regions are therefore harvested too late to obtain olive oil that is determined as fit for human consumption. This is why most of the world’s olive oil is made through a refining process that results in olive oil without the additional natural components that make Extra Virgin olive oil the best.

Typical harvest dates for EU producers are from November through to April when harvest should be completed before Christmas to achieve reasonably high quality.

Late harvest in Europe also means sweeping olives from the ground. In Australia our olives stay within the machine and transport process, never touching the ground.

Farmers in Australia are looking for alternative crops and the production of olives for oil, while it has unique challenges, is easier from a product handling perspective than many fresh fruit and vegetable products.

The Australian olive industry is attracting investment from the corporate sector and from part time farmers. In fact it is dominated by investment models and participants that are completely different from those who were in agriculture when I grew up on a sheep farm.

This has been criticized by the traditional farming sector in Australia but I think that the experience of the olive industry is in fact the future of agriculture in Australia. That is unless we change our model and start treating agriculture as it is treated in most other countries such as those in Europe.

I am not in a position to say whether one model is necessarily better than another – the European model is in place to achieve its own specific social objectives and works quite well from that perspective. All I am presenting is the reality that our industry finds itself faced with and how we are reacting to that.

The Australian olive industry like other agriculture has suffered because of the recent drought conditions and associated adverse weather, particularly frost. Its future is dependent on the ability to obtain irrigation water and having weather conditions that are less dramatic than in 2006.

Olive Oil Chemistry

Edible plant oils in their natural state are made up of triacylglycerols (TAGs - one glycerol molecule connected to three fatty acids - also known as triglycerides) and other components. The TAGs usually make up about 98% of the oil and the minor components about 2%.

In olive oil most of the TAGs contain oleic acid the preferred mono-unsaturate named after the olive. Other plant oils are different for example palm oil contains high levels of palmitic acid (named after palm oil) that is the main saturated fat we now try to avoid large doses of in our diets.

The minor components of olive oil make up a complex mix and contain useful compounds including antioxidants, plant sterols, Vitamin E complex, an anti-inflammatory compound and many flavours and colours.

Over the last 50 years there have been efforts to define olive oil chemistry initially to find out what it is and then to set standards for quality and to detect the presence of other oils.

There are some common tests that are accepted world wide as defining degrees of oxidative degradation such as the level of free fatty acids and also the levels of peroxide. Australian olive oils generally easily test below the maximum levels of these required for an oil to be considered Extra Virgin.

Since 2002 I have been increasingly involved in work on the chemistry of olive oil as it relates to inherent quality, to trade standards and to trade manipulation.

This became important to Australia when our leading food oil scientist, Dr Rod Mailer at NSW DPI Wagga Wagga, alerted me to the fact that some Australian Extra Virgin olive oils did not meet the European (EC) or the International Olive Council (IOC) standards for some minor components.

The variations in these components detected by special tests did not imply any true difference in quality. At the same time we found that the Codex Alimentarius Commission (Codex) was harmonising its standards for olive oil with the IOC. Codex is the standard referred to under WTO rules and Australia is represented at Codex. In 2003 Australian Government representatives, Dr Mailer and myself went to a Codex meeting to request that the Codex standard be made to represent the true chemistry and variations in this of olive oils from around the world. In my case I was naively thinking that our research results – the science – would be enough for this to happen.

Since then we have encountered strong resistance to these and other changes we have subsequently pursued at Codex. In 2004 there were several attempts by European buyers to reject or discount excellent Australian olive oils on the basis of minor component variations. We have found that this also happens on a regular basis to other producers including in Argentina, Israel and Spain.

At the same time the current EC/IOC standards do not effectively detect the presence of refined oil in olive oil labelled as Extra Virgin.

So while there are some standards and tests that we accept as important to detect fraud and define quality, there are serious deficiencies in the system of olive oil quality determination that favour the major EU based traders.

We are making progress on this and have found strong support amongst the scientific community around the world. Chemists in Australia, Germany, Greece and Spain are all working towards better chemical methods to detect the authenticity of olive oils and to define freshness and taste; in other words to determine how close the oil is to what it was when it came from the olive in its peak condition.

It has however taken a much larger effort than we anticipated. There are for example more than 20 government and non-government bodies that we have had to deal with in this process. In Australia food quality is dealt with at all levels of government and not in a consistent way. This is the same in other countries. The solution to the political complexity of such matters lies in developing relationships with key personnel who can cut across organizational barriers. We have found allies in various places, for example in the American Oil Chemist’s Society (AOCS), the German Society for Fat Science (DGF) and a long-standing organization in the UK the Federation of Oils Seeds and Fats Associations (FOSFA).

Soon Australia will have its own brand for its Extra Virgin olive oil backed by good chemistry and a Code of Practice with some teeth, in turn backed by the ACCC. In fact if we have our way there will be no need for consumers to consider anything but Extra Virgin olive oil as the oil for use in their food.

Olive Oil and Health

In recent years there has been publicity about human health being adversely affected by diet and lack of exercise. Terms such as ‘diabesity’ come up in debates about the extent of these problems.

As a scientist I have always been cynical about health claims for foods. I have made it my business to attend numerous conferences that have as part of the agenda human health and fats and oils. After 5 years of doing this all I can say is that the health message for olive oil is getting stronger as more research is done.

The main components of olive oil are its fatty acids. These contain a unique balance dominated by the monounsaturated oleic acid but also containing the polyunsaturates alpha-linolenic acid (an omega 3) and linoleic acid (an omega 6) as well as small quantities of the monounsaturate palmitic acid and an assortment of others as minor components. Olive oil contains negligible trans-fatty acids - effectively zero according to current testing.

The general consensus seems to be that the balance of the fatty acids in olive oil is what makes its fatty acid profile so useful for human nutrition. Of course the fresher the oil the less these have been degraded or oxidized and that is one of the reasons that we are pursuing ways to better authenticate the quality.

The other part of olive oil contains the so-called minor components and these are most prevalent in Extra Virgin olive oil.

These include a mix of polyphenols that are most of the antioxidants in Extra Virgin olive oil and also contribute to its taste. Apart form their desirability for human nutrition these compounds protect the oil from oxidation.

The phytosterols in olive oil include beta-sitosterol and campesterol. Plant sterols such as these are thought to directly help lower cholesterol by a few different mechanisms. There is always debate about this but it is significant that these two plant sterols are being added to hospital foods and also foods such as margarine to make them better for human nutrition. Fortunately they are already in Extra Virgin olive oil.

Olive oil contains vitamin E. Vitamin E in fact refers to a complex of tocopherols and tocotrienols. It has been reported that the vitamin E in olive oil contains a high proportion of the most active tocopherol alpha-tocopherol and what is more another compound found in olive oil and named after olives - oleuropein – has a protective effect on the alpha tocopherol. This makes olive oil better with regard to its content of vitamin E than many other plant oils.

The other compound I wanted to mention was recently discovered by Australian and north American researchers. This compound has been called oleacanthin after olive oil and it is reported to have anti-inflammatory effects akin to ibuprofen, the active ingredient of several proprietary painkillers. Oleacanthin is the material that causes the back of ones throat to feel a peppery sensation and feel warm to the point of coughing if you eat neat green Extra Virgin olive oil.

These are by no means the only positive health aspects of olive oil that are reported and the broader research includes studies on diets such as the traditional diet of Crete that has been used to reduce the risk of re-occurrence of heart problems in people with heart disease.

Many health and nutrition professionals I have spoken to believe that one of the main benefits of trying to introduce obese or ill patients to the Mediterranean style diets is that they still get the mouth feel and satiety that they would previously get from junk foods because of the presence of olive oil. A lot of money is spent by food manufacturers on getting mouth feel right but once again good olive oil already has this characteristic naturally.

All of this is quite complex but as consumers I can tell you that if an olive oil tastes fresh, flavoursome and fruity then it is in good shape and should have the attributes mentioned above. Australian Extra Virgin olive oils are becoming known for their fresh flavour and fruity characteristics – signs of balanced production techniques. These oils are seen as user-friendly for those who know olive oil and also for those that are new to it. This is helping us gain market share but it also reflects the quality of these oils and that is another reason why we are determined to define and protect their integrity.

Two interesting comments:

‘In short, if it did not exist, we would have had to invent olive oil’
Prof. Dott. Publio Viola,
Primario Medico
Ospedale S. Giovanni
Rome, Italy, 1997

‘Extra virgin olive oil, the perfect oil’
Prof. Michel Parmentier
ENSAIA
Vandoeuvre-les-Nancy, France, September 2004

After attending all these sessions on food, fats and oils and health, my recipe for the perfect meal (that would be healthy and just) is authentic Australian salmon, seafood, pasta, vegetables, extra virgin olive oil and wine. Healthy because these Australian products have many excellent food attributes. The justice comes from the fact that Australian food producers – farmers and fishermen and scientists - do care about the authenticity and origin of their products and this means that what you see is what you get.

Summary

We are at a very interesting stage for the Australian olive industry, an industry that is small by world standards but innovative, technical, modern and so far dedicated to the quality of its products. In one sense the olive industry’s future will be a test of whether Australia is capable of taking on a new product and model for agriculture or not. Time will tell but we are blessed with this wonderful product that comes from ancient times; thank you Athena.