Specialty Food Magazine

Summer 2019

Specialty Food Magazine is the leading publication for retailers, manufacturers and foodservice professionals in the specialty food trade. It provides news, trends and business-building insights that help readers keep their businesses competitive.

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"There's been a lot of bad press about olive oil," says Brett Greenberg, a certified olive oil sommelier and the business develop- ment manager for private label at New York-based FoodMatch, a specialty food producer and importer that focuses on Mediterranean foods. "While it was great to highlight to the public what's going on, I think [the negative coverage] almost made consumers feel as though all imported olive oil is going to be adulterated and is not to be trusted." Retail sales of olive oil in the U.S. have been increasing steadily for the last several years, according to data from Nielsen. Through the 52 weeks ending Feb. 23, 2019, sales totaled about $1.21 billion, compared with $1.19 billion in the preceding 52-week span. Dollar sales increased at a compound annual rate of 2.5 per- cent over the past three years, Nielsen reported. Unit volume, by contrast, increased at a slower, 0.4 percent rate in that time. Unit volume was basically f lat in the most recent 52-week span, after a slight decline in the 52 weeks ending Feb. 24, 2018, compared with the preceding year. This year sales appear poised to be more tumultuous, with some observers already reporting price increases due to olive crop shortfalls in some parts of the world. Last fall's olive harvest was one of the weakest on record for Italy, which saw production drop by more than 50 percent from 2017 levels, according to the Olive Oil Times. In addition to prob- lems related to climate, and to the fact that olive trees naturally alternate between high-yield and low-yield seasons, Italy's crop is also being hurt by an infestation of Xylella fastidiosa bacterium, which has killed millions of trees in the southern region of Puglia since it first appeared there about five years ago. Greece, which is normally the third largest producer behind Spain and Italy, also had a weak harvest in 2018. Those decreases will be partially offset by a strong growing season in Spain, the world's number-one producer, but the shortfall was already driving up prices for Italian olives by 30 percent or more early this year, according to reports. Those higher costs could lead some producers to dilute their Italian and Greek olive oils with oil from Tunisia or other sources, according to some reports. Educating Consumers Salvatore Russo-Tiesi, general manager at Italian olive oil importer Bono USA, says retailers can help consumers understand the forces behind olive oil pricing by teaching them about where olive oil comes from and how it's made. "That really helps to soften the impact of any 'sticker shock ' that a customer sees when shopping for their favorite olive oil," he says, although he notes that Bono USA was not increasing its prices this year. While olive oil connoisseurs understand the seasonality of the crop, the importance of freshness and the f lavors produced by various specific cultivars, regions, and estates, industry experts note there's plenty of room to further educate the many mainstream consumers who have adopted olive oil for its health properties or because they like the f lavor in general. "The general consumer is still confused," says Greenberg of FoodMatch, especially when it comes to extra virgin olive oils. "Similar to wine, you can be overwhelmed," he says. "Most people go into a wine shop and end up picking a label that catches their eye and that's in the right price range." Similarly, everyday olive oil shoppers must sort through an array of attributes and claims, from country of origin to monocul- tivars that are made from a single olive variety. Many customers simply don't know what the most important characteristics to look for are. Customers rely on retailers to help make sense of these attri- butes and claims, Greenberg says. Russo-Tiesi says his company has a "hand-in-hand" relation- ship with retailers to help educate consumers. "The buyer must understand what they are doing in order to put the right product on the shelf, but it's equally, if not more important, that the final consumer knows what they're purchasing," he says. category education SUMMER 2019 99

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