Season 3 Episode 4

Eryn Balch

This Week's Guest:

Eryn Balch

NAOOA Executive Vice President

Eryn Balch is the executive vice president of the North American Olive Oil Association, the trade group representing the largest olive oil importers. Balch’s office recently sued TV’s Dr. Oz for what it called “his false and careless words that have discouraged millions of people from using a product with scientifically demonstrated advantages.”

Curtis CordEryn Balch spent five years with Sovena USA, one of the largest American importers of olive oil, before she joined the Trade Association of Olive Oil Importers, the North American Olive Oil Association, as its executive vice president in 2012. Eryn always has a lot going on. The trade group works on behalf of its members on legislative and regulatory issues, monitors olive oil quality in its testing program, and once in a while calls out brands that don’t make the grade.

Eryn was in the news most recently when her office sued TV’s Dr. Oz for what it called his false and careless words that have discouraged millions of people from using a product with scientifically demonstrated advantages. Eryn joins us today from upstate New York. Good morning, Eryn.

Eryn BalchGood morning, Curtis.

Curtis CordHave you had a lot of snow this week?

Eryn BalchWe have, actually. This year is the opposite of last year. We’ve got a lot of snow already and sure we’ll have a white Christmas.

Curtis CordHow much did you get?

Eryn BalchOnly six or so inches in the recent one.

Curtis CordYou’re used to it.

Eryn BalchWe are.

Curtis CordAre you from upstate New York?

Eryn BalchYes. I’m from Rome, New York.

Curtis CordWhat is that, near Albany or north of Albany?

Eryn BalchAbout two hours north of Albany, one hour east of Syracuse, so right in the middle of the state.

Curtis CordWell, I know you stay pretty busy at the Association. What do you spend most of your time doing there? To be honest, I picture you huddled with lawyers and PR people writing letters to senators and people at the FDA, but I’m sure you’re going to set me straight about that.

Eryn BalchWe do do some of that. The NAOOA is actually, it’s a trade association for sellers and marketers of olive oil in the US and Canada, so one of the things that is different about our association is that we’re not linked to any specific country or region or grade of olive oil. We’re open to any company that wants to market olive oils in North America and agrees to follow the IOC standards as well as industry supporters, so in addition to some of the things you just mentioned we have two primary areas of activity. One is monitoring the market and testing olive oils and working to enforce the IOC standards, and the other very important area is promoting olive oil consumption, so promoting all olive oil consumption.

Curtis CordWho are your members?

Eryn BalchToday our members represent about 60% of all the olive oil consumed in the US, big and small companies, major brands, retail brands, food-service brands, private label suppliers, bulk and industrial suppliers, so a mix of all of the players in the category that are bringing olive oil to US consumers.

Curtis CordHow many members are there?

Eryn BalchWe have about 60 members today, so they are … We have many of the big brands in the US are in our membership, and also a good number of small and medium-sized companies where olive oil may be one of many specialty food products that they supply to various channels in the US.

Curtis Cord60 companies that are responsible for about 180,000 tons of olive oil.

Eryn BalchYeah.

Curtis CordHow many tests do you conduct during an average year?

Eryn BalchIt depends. We have a number of different testing programs. One of the things is that we have worked since the very, very beginning with the International Olive Council, and I’m sure most of your listeners know the IOC has been around since 1959 when it was chartered by the United Nations, and IOC member countries represent about 95% of all the world olive oil production, but the US is the biggest nonmember olive oil import market in the world, so the NAOOA has always relied on the IOC as the benchmark for olive oil standards, testing, and statistics.

We are, the NAOOA, is one of the founding signatories to the IOC’s quality control on import markets agreement, and this is a program that has allowed the NAOOA to monitor the market far more than our direct budget ever could for over 25 years now, so the agreement, what it does is it pools funds from all the signatory associations, which may be producers, exporters, importers, consumer associations, and they pull the funds so that the products that are sold in nonmember countries like the US can be collected and tested for compliance with the IOC standards.

Curtis CordSo you get funds for testing from the IOC.

Eryn BalchThey pay for the testing for us through this agreement, so the export and the consumer associations are interested in monitoring the market as well, and over the years the number of samples that we’ve been able to send has increased as the market has grown. In recent years, we’re sending between 150 and 200 samples from the US and Canada to the IOC each year for testing, and this program has really been instrumental in allowing us to alert industry members as well as state and federal authorities about the quality and purity of what’s out there for sale to consumers.

Curtis CordWhy do you test it there? Why don’t you test it here?

Eryn BalchUntil a week ago there were not any independent IOC-recognized laboratories in the US, and one of the things that is very different in the program is that we always run the full purity and authenticity analysis, which can get expensive. There’s a lot of laps that are very capable to do some of the quality checks and those kind of things, but until recently, as I said, we haven’t had any independent IOC labs in the US, so we’ve always send them overseas to the experience labs that are in the main producing countries.

In addition to that IOC program, we also started a number of years ago our NAOOA quality seal program, which lets brands that are interested in participating, they pay a fee, which helps cover the cost of the testing, to make sure that their brand is picked up at least twice a year. It’s like a mystery shopper program, so someone will go out and collect the samples from stores just like consumers would buy them. The brands don’t know when or where the samples will be picked up, but they’re picked up and they’re also shipped off to IOC-recognized laboratories for the full round of testing, so today we have brands that represent more than a third of the total retail tract market share are now participating in the seal program.

Curtis CordSince testing is expensive, and I know it’s expensive, has the Association ever considered establishing its own in-house lab?

Eryn BalchWe haven’t, not to this point. The US primarily is a consuming country, and although that’s definitely starting to change in the last five to 10 years, we have always, again, relied on the IOC, where the majority of world production and research takes place, to be the benchmark for the standards.

Curtis CordWhen you test an oil, what do you do? Do you buy it off the shelf and you send the bottle over there, or you-

Eryn BalchWe buy it off the shelf. The samples are sent as blind samples so the lab doesn’t know what they’re testing, what brand they’re testing, so it’s all coded and the results come back and we match up the codes with the brands and share the results with the brand owners.

Curtis CordI’ve heard you say that 98% of the oil that you test is authentic.

Eryn BalchThe seal program is for our members, but the general testing that we do and also the work that the IOC helps us with through the quality control agreement, that covers both member and nonmember brands. We did an analysis recently in the last three years. Each year the brands that we were able to pick up off the shelf represented over 50% of the retail market share each given year, and what we found is that when we do find problems it is in a very small percentage of the total samples, and the brand names that we found problems with don’t have any recognizable market share. They’re usually little unknown name brands, so that’s why we’re always very busy going to many places and looking for many different labels.

Curtis Cord98%.

Eryn BalchOf the market share, yeah, so the brands that have a problem represent less than 2% of the retail market share.

Curtis CordSo it’s not 2% of the samples, but 2% of the market share.

Eryn BalchRight. In the last three years, we had about 5% of all the samples had either a quality or a purity issue, but of those 5% of the samples, the brands only represented less than 1% of the market share.

Curtis CordWhen you say 98% is authentic, what does that mean?

Eryn BalchAuthentic meaning it passes all the purity tests for that grade, so is made just from olives and nothing else.

Curtis CordIt’s the grade that it’s labeled.

Eryn BalchYes.

Curtis CordBut 2% of 180,000 tons is still, oh, I don’t know, a lot. That’s a lot of bad olive oil, isn’t it?

Eryn BalchRelatively speaking. I guess it depends how you look at it. Compared to what it probably was 20 years ago when people weren’t very aware of their food, 20 years ago most consumers were consuming olive oil and not extra-virgin olive oil, so there was very little way to distinguish by flavor, for example, whereas today it’s actually completely switched and 65 to 70% of the sales today are extra-virgin olive oil as opposed to olive oil.

Curtis CordHow do you think we get to 100%?

Eryn BalchI don’t know that we have to get 100%.

Curtis CordI didn’t mean how did we get to 100% extra virgin. I mean how do we get to 100% of the oil is what it says it is.

Eryn BalchAh. I think that will take a combined effort from the industry to work together. We have more and more companies that are learning about testing and what it means, also how to distinguish quality versus purity. There are some things that change over time, so there’s an educational component that’s necessary with retailers and stalkers to make sure they’re handling the products properly, and really just the market all watching out for each other.

Curtis CordYeah. You’ve spent some time developing the sensory skills for olive oil evaluation on your own.

Eryn BalchYes.

Curtis CordDo you go around and taste some of the oils in the supermarkets that you come across?

Eryn BalchOn occasion I do. I’m very lucky. I would say I’m one of these spoiled ones at this point, because I was a very typical American consumer 10 years ago who probably didn’t really know the difference between any extra-virgin olive oil and any other one and didn’t know much about what was the difference between extra-virgin and olive oil.

I’ve been very lucky to be able to meet and work with and attend a lot of training classes and appreciate all the different styles that come from all over the world, and in my house I cook with, I guess what you would call a supermarket extra-virgin olive oil, everything, and then I always have at least two other bottles of extra-virgin olive oil, a delicate and a more robust, and I always have also a bottle of olive oil for baking and things when I don’t want flavor in there, so if every American could even have half as many bottles as I do in their kitchen at any given time, we would make a big dent in the opportunity that we have to increase consumption.

Curtis CordI’m with you, but when you buy that big bottle at the supermarket, are you often disappointed in what you smell or taste, being an expert yourself?

Eryn BalchNo. I’ve learned to read labels. I’ve learned that I know what I like for my style of cooking, so it makes it much easier to choose the right oil for the job, and I think what’s important is that consumers have that choice to be able to purchase oils that fit their price point and the job that they’re going to do.

Curtis CordWhat do you look for on the label?

Eryn BalchIt depends. I don’t promote any specific brands over the others, but one I’m looking for a delicate or robust, like I said, I’ve learned certain varieties that are typically more delicate or certain regions of the world that produce a more delicate oil, so I would look for those kind of things. For my everyday cooking oil, I tend to just get what is reasonably priced that I’ve used in the past and had good experience with.

Curtis CordHave you ever seen a commercial on TV for on olive oil brand? I haven’t. I’ve seen them for canola oil, not for olive oil. Isn’t that surprising? This is a $15 billion category and there is virtually no marketing on a large scale.

Eryn BalchYeah. I think there have been a few, probably very targeted, only on Food Network and those kind of things. One of the opportunities that is out there that the NAOOA has really been trying to generate some support for is there is a program through USDA called the research and promotion order program that would basically put a small assessment on all imports and all domestic production and pool that money.

It would generate millions, millions of dollars, which is far more than any of the associations or groups have on their own, to do research and do promotions of the whole category, and that’s something that we’ve started talking with California producers and others to try to get some support for because we think there could be huge growth there and an opportunity that would benefit all the suppliers in the category, as well as consumers.

Curtis CordHmm. That sounds promising.

Eryn BalchWe hope so.

Curtis CordThe thing is, we wouldn’t care if we were talking about something else, but olive oil has benefits that can improve our health and even help us live longer, and that’s why it hurts to see people turn away from it out of suspicion or confusion.

Eryn BalchYeah. The consumers’ growing suspicion about olive oil, it’s a travesty, and I hate that word, but it’s so fitting in this situation. The olive oil category in the US and Canada was on a very strong, steady upward path for decades, and even then still left everybody in the industry a huge amount of room for future growth and expanding consumption and expanding sales, and the health benefits are not only proven time and time again, but we also continue to reveal even more new health benefits as research continues to evolve.

Unfortunately, somehow we’ve gotten to a point where people hear olive oil and often their first association might be fake or fraud, so we’re still battling the age-old common usage myths about things like smoke point and color and those kind of basic things, but now we have to overcome new hurdles related to authenticity and standards, and even the health benefits themselves are being questioned now, and this won’t turn around until the industry works together to promote the basic facts and the benefits that we can attribute to all olive oils in the category and be able to sell our own unique products based on their benefits and not by putting others down.

Curtis CordYeah. You know, in Australia the market share of imported oils went from nearly 100% down to 70% as people there began favoring the domestic oils, which on its own is not necessarily a bad thing, but the way it happened was through, as I see it, sensational news stories and fear mongering. There seems to be a lot of that going on here too, and I sense we’re going to see a lot more because fear and loathing seems to be the narrative style that people respond to these days.

Eryn BalchYeah, it’s unfortunate, and I think the real question in places like Australia is, while we can look at the share of imports versus domestic, the real question is what about total consumption overall and per capita consumption and category growth, because for sure in countries like the US, where our per capita consumption is about one liter per person a year, compared to countries like Italy and Spain and Greece, it’s 11, 12, 15 liters per capita consumption, there’s room for everyone to grow their business and room for consumers to experience health benefits.

Curtis CordThe consumption is going down in those places.

Eryn BalchExactly, and that’s the problem. It’s a short-term to promote trading share between imports versus domestic. It shouldn’t be an us versus them. It’s a category, should be a category-wide initiative to grow consumption because it benefits not just the people in the category, but consumers, because as we’ve said, there’s more studies on the benefits of olive oil, all kinds of olive oil. There’s new studies looking at polyphenols and all of these things, but the historical studies that support the FDA health claim, for example, the American Heart Association Heart-Check mark claim, those are all based on the monounsaturated fat, which is the same in all olive oils, and there are benefits, scientifically proven benefits, to consuming olive oil versus either saturated fats or another cooking and seed oil, and we’re missing the boat.

Curtis CordLast week you did something about that in the form of a lawsuit against Dr. Oz. He had someone on the show that was employed by the largest domestic producer, and they pretty much told viewers that the way to be sure you get what you pay for was to buy California olive oils, but can’t Dr. Oz say anything he wants on his show? This is the age of info wars, right? Fake news is all the rage. Rachael Ray said if you can see through the olive oil bottle, use it for cooking. If you can’t see through it, use it for dressing. Utter nonsense. Isn’t it surprising how little these people prepare before going on air to talk about something that can have pretty profound implications for people’s diets and their health?

Eryn BalchYeah. It really is, and again, it goes back to if we had the industry working together to promote the basic facts correctly, I think it would go a lot farther than right now where we have associations like ours, and I know we’re not the only ones, but when we see this misinformation, we’re constantly writing letters and sending links and sending information and trying to follow up and correct things after the fact, and I can’t speak to the specifics of the Dr. Oz case, but I can say that the reason the NAOOA brought the lawsuit is to correct false information that was broadcast on that show, and ultimately it’s about making sure that consumers know the facts so they can make decisions that are best for their health and their taste.

Curtis CordI’m sure discussions flew around your office about whether to do something about that “60 Minutes” episode that aired a little while ago.

Eryn BalchWe contacted “60 Minutes,” as we have with many, many other groups, and they published a little bit of a very tiny sentence of an explanation on their website, but it is certainly a big hurdle of trying to constantly correct all the misinformation that comes from many different places.

Curtis CordA few months ago I needed some samples of defective olive oils to use in the olive oil sommelier program that I direct at the International Culinary Center, so I went down to my local supermarket and bought six big jugs that were labeled extra-virgin. I didn’t even look at the brands, and every one of them was awful. One was the perfect rancid. Another one was the ideal specimen of muddy. Another was more reminiscent of vinegar than vinegar. It was a small sampling, very unscientific, I know.

They weren’t extra-virgin. Were they virgin? I doubt it, but perhaps. I think you can probably agree that a lot of the oils that say extra-virgin are really virgin, yet we rarely see virgin oils on the shelf. Don’t you think we ought to make use of the virgin grade, sell them for a little less? It would expand the options for consumers, and a little truthfulness could go a long way in winning back some of that trust that the category yearns for.

Eryn BalchWell, I wouldn’t say that I exactly agree with everything you just said. I would be very surprised to be able to go to a store and randomly pick out bottles and get perfect examples of so many different defects, and I think one of the challenges with sensory analysis in particular is that no matter how much we try to make it be an exact science, it’s not an exact science, and even trained, recognized panels often will come up with different assessments on the same oil.

I think from the consumer point of view it would be much more beneficial if we were using sensory analysis the way other categories use it for describing styles or flavor profiles, something that is useful for the consumer to have and use with different types of cooking, for example, so you know when you need a delicate, buttery, fruity oil or you know when you need a strong, peppery, robust oil, or for the regions, for example, which some have … PDOs do a little bit of that, but the challenge really is in the way that our industry uses sensory analysis for grading when it’s such an inexact science, and especially to have individuals claim that they can grade a product. The only way to properly determine if an oil is extra-virgin or virgin is to have a recognized panel do an assessment and then have a second panel confirm that.

Individuals, and this is a lot of where the problem stems from, as much training as we can do for ourselves, everyone’s palate is different. That is a fact, and panels work very hard to remove any bias that they might have, but we still see some differences, especially in different countries and even different regions within the same country, when panels analyze oils, so for sure if panels are not even 100% consistent, it’s not right for any individual to be grading oils, and that’s been happening a lot in the last five years.

Curtis CordRight, but wouldn’t you agree that much of the oil that’s sold in this country that is labeled extra-virgin actually belongs in the virgin category?

Eryn BalchNo, I wouldn’t agree. Not based on the testing that we’ve done.

Curtis CordWhy do we not even see the virgin grade on the shelf?

Eryn BalchThat I don’t know.

Curtis CordWe have a new protectionist President-elect, and your members are concerned about free trade, tariffs, quotas. It’s all about importing, so is there a lot of concern among your members about this kind of leadership?

Eryn BalchYeah. I think in general, any threat to free trade, especially in this category, is always something that we have to take notice and stay on top of because more than 95% of all US olive oil is supplied by importers, so we’re always interested in protecting consumers’ access to olive oil, given the proven health advantages of using olive oil.

They’re recognized by the American Heart Association and the Food and Drug Administration, and the huge opportunity that’s still out there to increase consumption and improve Americans’ health, it simply wouldn’t make sense to erect trade barriers, so we will fight to keep them from being put up, and also we have to remember that the cost of olive oil is already higher than, for example, canola or vegetable, soybean oils, and any regulations that inflate the price further would surely hurt consumers and market growth, so that is something we keep a very close eye on.

Curtis CordTell me about your conference in Chicago.

Eryn BalchA couple of years ago we launched an olive oil conference, and the primary mission at that olive oil conference, we always say if you tell people something they might hear it and if you teach them they might remember it for a little while, but when people actually do, they learn, and we’ve combined actual hands-on usage in with other industry related topics for a couple of days, so for example, all of the meals at the olive oil conference are served with two portions, so one is made with …

They’re made with two different olive oils so you can see what you like better, and some people like a delicate one better than a robust or vice versa, and sometimes you can’t tell the difference in certain types of cooking, so it’s a lot of talking about the industry, learning the facts about health benefits, a lot of tasting, a lot of, lot of tasting. We also have a North American tasters’ challenge that we’ve created where teams can get together and compete to see who has the best sensory abilities, and we combine that with cooking and food and really just an overall appreciation of actually using the products.

Curtis CordWhen is that?

Eryn BalchOur third year is coming up next July, July 19th and 20th, 2017, and it will be at the Westin O’Hare near Chicago.

Curtis CordEryn Balch is the executive vice president of the North American Olive Oil Association. Thank you for joining us today, Eryn.

Eryn BalchThank you for having me, Curtis.