A television commercial used to tell us that “oils ain’t oils” and it seems it also applies in the extra virgin olive oil business. While importers are pulling the proverbial wool over our eyes, local producer Andrew Down is leading a trail of honesty.
The isle on the western front of a local supermarket is like entering a mine field. It preys on our desire to be healthier and for most thinner with suggestions the eggs are ‘free range’, but it doesn’t necessarily mean the chook lives in paradise because just a glimpse of exposure to the outdoors can make the term legal.
We see the darker brands of bread and crackers with a message ‘whole grain’, not realising they include caramel colouring and are no healthier than other products that are not 100 per cent whole grains.
Another label favourite is ‘no added sugar’, but it doesn’t necessarily mean the product is calorie or carbohydrate free, so we’re left wondering whether our wretched set of bathroom scales is malfunctioning.
The list of confusing, often misleading signage on our food products in all supermarkets remains significant, and not surprisingly a Neilsen survey reveals 59 per cent of consumers have a difficult time understanding nutrition labels.
And as we move into another isle we find the biggest misconception of all… the extra virgin olive oil. The labels, particularly on those from Italy and Spain, say it’s extra virgin so it must be right, we think. You can’t see the difference between the plain olive oil, so we take their word, as we tend to do when we pick up the eggs and think of Henrietta on the farm soaking up the sun.
However, Andrew Down, who cast aside his veterinary surgeon business to tend to his olive grove under his Seaview Grove label involving 1800 olive trees on an 80-acre property at the top of Goolwa/Middleton, believes the false claims on what is extra virgin olive oil is doing nothing to help our local producers.
Reserved and well-mannered, Andrew is not the type to be aggressive in presenting his views, but then he’s also not frightened to say them when it comes to protecting consumers. For example, he is passionate about having his olive oil grove being organic, yet as a respected vet when in the dairy industry and himself once a dairy farmer questions the validity to a degree in regard to organic dairy farms.
“It’s about doing the right thing by the animals,” Andrew said. “As a vet I used to go to lots of organic farms, and I found it quite hard from the animal perspective to perform a difficult
calving when needing to cut to get the calf out without being allowed to give pain relief or antibiotics in order to protect the organic status.
“I am all for organic, and we keep this whole olive grove completely organic, but sometimes farmers need to be realistic and not go so hard-lined on the issue… not do it as just an all-in or all-out scenario.”
Andrew’s frustration now surrounds consumers being duped about imported olive oil.
“After sitting in warehouses in Spain and Italy for five or six years, and with the Australian dollar being low, the oil is then dumped on our supermarket shelves,” Andrew said. “And because there are no laws about what you can call your olive oil, it is sold as ‘extra virgin’ olive oil. It is just garbage, and with no health benefits at all.”
The fight is shared by the Australian Olive Association, whose members have entered a voluntary code of practice to have their olive oil tested each year to ensure their product is genuine. Look for them on labels.
In simple terms, plain olive oil is nothing special, but according to Andrew, extra virgin olive oil is made from the best fruit, and processed within 24 hours. It has to be stored appropriately, and tested for levels fatty acids, polyphenol anti-oxidants, plus other criteria. The process is extensive, but the health benefits are profound.
“By sight, it would be difficult to pick a bottle of olive oil from one that is extra virgin olive oil,” Andrew said. “You can taste the difference; the extra virgin oil has a more bitter or peppery taste. Some people don’t like that; it’s all the polyphenols that are tickling the back of your throat.
“The hard thing with the labeling is that you can get it tested and stick the name extra virgin on, but as soon as the bottle is opened and gets contact with light it goes off within four months. You can still use it for salads and so on, but it is no longer extra virgin; gone are the health qualities.”
Andrew believes butter is for toast, and proudly declares that he and his wife, Emily, who is a general practitioner in Goolwa, and have children, Sterling, four, and Mitchell, 18 months, use extra virgin olive oil in almost everything they cook.
“It’s great in cakes; it gives them more oomph,” Andrew said. “Extra virgin olive oil is high in calories, but they are the good fats that our body needs… it’s the core of the Mediterranean diet.”
To offer much longer-lasting extra virgin qualities Andrew sells his Seaview Grove label in bladders inside cardboard boxes like cask wine. He admits it’s not as nice to look at as bottles, but it keeps light out and no air gets to it so the olive oil doesn’t start oxidizing.
“Some people don’t like us because we’re in a cardboard box,” Andrew said. “It’s against every marketing principle, but we would rather produce good quality even if means remaining small, otherwise, we’re like everyone else.”
Andrew ceased being a veterinary surgeon in December, 2012 after eight years. “We had a dairy farm before this olive oil venture at Meningie, where I grew up, and I was also a dairy vet in northern Victoria.
“I juggled the two, and then I came back to South Australia for a while, sold the farm and got out of the dairy industry altogether. I didn’t like where the dairy industry was heading, and it was not much of a family life.”
Olive trees generally produce good yields every second year, and while Andrew’s grove is relatively young it should bring in 3000 litres of olive oil this year, and soon reach its capacity of an estimated 10,000lt.
Rest assured, when you see the cartons with a difference on the shelves at places like Goolwa Central Meats and Alexandrina Cheese, and especially online, it will be all genuine extra virgin olive oil.
“Some people look at us thinking what a great lifestyle, but Emily and I worked pretty hard and long hours for years from when we first got married, what with me in vet clinics and Emily in hospitals while we also ran a dairy farm,” Andrew said. “To be honest, our life had to change.”
And we’re left to ponder: if only the scurrilous labels changed to be honest.