- By Alicia P.Q. WittmeyerAlicia P.Q. Wittmeyer is the Europe editor at Foreign Policy. Her work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, the Washington Post, and Forbes, among other places. She holds a bachelor’s degree from the University of California, Berkeley, and master’s degrees from Peking University and the London School of Economics. The P.Q. stands for Ping-Quon.
The reusable olive oil bottle — a staple on restaurant tables across Europe, evocative of summers in Tuscany and vineyards in southern Spain — has been banned from restaurants by the powers that be in Brussels, in a move the European Commission has sought to frame as a consumer protection measure. Critics, however, see it as an attempt to prop up a struggling olive oil industry and representative of the European Union’s bureaucratic overreach.
Reusable bottles, the Commission claims, are unhygienic, and there’s a risk that they could be refilled with unknown, cheap, and low-quality oils. The AP has more:
"This will ensure a high-quality product for consumers," said Rafael Sanchez de Puerta of the Copa-Cogecas federation (a European farmers federation). Also, by displaying the name, origins and storing conditions, "this will help to preserve the image of olive oil."
Many, however, are unconvinced.
"With the euro crisis, a collapse in confidence in the EU, and a faltering economy, surely the commission has more important things to worry about than banning refillable olive oil bottles?" inquired one British member of the European Parliament. Germany’s Suddeutsche Zeitung newspaper, meanwhile, called the regulations the "silliest" rules since the EU’s infamous attempt to regulate the curvature of cucumbers.
Of course, the requirement that olive oil must be served in pre-packaged factory bottles, with tamper-proof nozzles and standardized labeling, is the sort of regulation that people love to mock. And others have voiced the more serious concern that, by placing an emphasis on standardized packaging, the regulations could help out large-scale olive oil producers — many of which are located in some of Europe’s weakest economies — at the expense of smaller farms.
But consumers could actually use more protection when it comes to olive oil. The staple is one of the most fraud-prone agricultural products in Europe, in part because it’s so much more valuable than other forms of oil and remains relatively easy to doctor with cheaper products like soybean and other seed oil. ("Profits were comparable to cocaine trafficking, with none of the risks," one investigator told writer Tom Mueller, who later went on to write a book about olive oil fraud). The EU, in fact, has an olive-oil task force dedicated solely to stopping trafficking in dodgy extra-virgin.
Still, this kind of large-scale fraud takes place at the level of producers and bottlers — not at the restaurant table.