North American Olive Oil Association
Joseph R. Profaci, Colavita USA
The past twelve months have been transformational for the NAOOA. At this point last year, the olive oil association was reeling from the recent report of olive oil fraud on CBS’s 60 Minutes. As a result our members challenged the association to devise a strategic plan both to respond to continued attacks against imported olive oil, and to redouble our efforts to promote positive news about the category.
At our meeting at the AFI Convention in Orlando last year, we held a brainstorming session to refine our strategic plan, and soon thereafter turned our efforts to obtaining the necessary funding to execute the plan with the help of trade association support from Spain. Those efforts were successful, and we are extremely grateful for the help that enabled us to begin executing a large portion of the strategic plan.
There are three main branches in our olive oil strategy: defend against attacks; science and standards; and communications. Regarding attacks, they seemed to continue unabated in 2016 and into 2017; it is clear that the “fake news” epidemic in the United States is not limited to those seeking to gain political advantages. Soon after the AFI Convention, The Dr. Oz show took the unfounded allegations from the 60 Minutes’ report and expanded on them, and a barrage of blogs from questionable sources also spread these stories. Domestic industry interests also cited these fake news stories to have language about olive oil fraud inserted into a report that accompanied the draft House of Representatives Agricultural Committee appropriations bill, which proposed funding to have the FDA test imported olive oils.
In response to these attacks and others, the NAOOA took several steps. We filed suit against Dr. Oz under food libel statute in Georgia. Although our case suffered a setback on a technicality of Georgia law, the lawsuit made loud and clear that the association is serious about curtailing the spread of false information about olive oil. In addition, the association filed another suit against companies alleging among other things that supermarket olive oils were “fake” and/or had no health benefits. We’ve been sending a seemingly continuous stream of “cease and desist” letters to bloggers and online publications who repeated the fake news, with varying degrees of success. Finally, the NAOOA began working closely with Washington D.C. consultants to help us educate lawmakers about the current state of affairs. As a result of those efforts, the draft Senate Agricultural Committee appropriations report included language that the FDA should conduct testing of all products (and not just imports).
Finally, because sometimes the best defense is a good offense, we undertook efforts to find ways to collaborate with the domestic industry, including the possible pursuit of a USDA Research and Promotion Order. We also took steps to increase the visibility and authority of the NAOOA as a source for reliable information, including re-vamping the way our Quality Seal Program works to make it more attractive to retailers, and modified our by-laws in an effort to expand membership.
With regard to science and standards, the NAOOA has entered into a relationship with a renowned U.S. university to produce a series of webinars on olive oil nutrition, and participated in the Food & Nutrition Conference and Expo in Boston last October.
Finally, with regard to communications, the NAOOA entered into a relationship with a new strategic communications firm that has helped us focus our efforts on communicating the positive characteristics of olive oil, including the use of targeted graphic information, as well as keeping our messages clear when addressing the allegations of industry fraud. This has dovetailed nicely with our social media agency, whose role in promoting olive oil and the NAOOA through blog posts and other outlets has expanded greatly.
For the coming year, as we continue to execute our strategic plan, the challenges the olive oil import industry faces continue to be substantial. There continues to be a proliferation of fake news. We must remain vigilant of obstacles that might be erected in light of anti-trade rhetoric of the 2016 presidential campaign, both in terms of import regulations and tax policy. Further, while we are grateful for the generous financial support we have received from overseas trade associations, we must expand our sources of funding to ensure that we are able to complete our mission. We are more confident than ever, however, that we have the team in place to help the association deal with and overcome whatever challenges come our way.