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Letter from Athens: Greek Olive Oil The Best But World Doesn't Know It

Αssociated Press

It's the real national symbol of Greece – the simple, elegant, life-sustaining olive tree – and there are some 170 million of them across 11.6 million acres in a country that's been producing olive oil since ancient times.

And yet, because of a failure to properly market a product that is the world's best – just like saffron, and honey, and other Greek commodities that are overlooked despite their superior quality, now even Tunisian olive oil is licking Greece.

That was in Canada, where organizer George Kouvelis put together the Canada International Olive Oil Competition as much to draw attention to that country as Greek olive oil.

"If an olive oil producer or olive oil company wins a Canadian award in 2021, their product will be famous around the world."

He was right, but it's Tunisian, not Greek, so once again Greek olive oil has slipped off the top shelf. In hypermarkets in New York you can find olive oil from countries you wouldn't think have an olive tree but they're being marketed better than what Greek companies do, which is next to nothing.

The newspaper Kathimerini noted the sad irony, blaming insufficient promotion abroad and no real coherent policy to contain the cost of exports to countries such as Canada where there are enough Greeks to spread the word.

You can expect competition from Spain and Italy – which buys Greek olive oil and slaps an Italian label on it, but Tunisia?

Well, it's not as surprising as it sounds as Tunisia has been stepping up its olive oil game big time and has become a major exporter to the United States and France – and even Spain as well as Portugal, which has been producing the stuff since Roman times.

Greece has more than 2,800 olive oil mills across the country and you can find them even in backyard groves from the mountain to the sea, some of the best never making it to big supermarkets, being locally grown and distributed.

But the Canadian competition put the light on what Greece is losing, just as it did when it let Greek-style yogurts capture the market in the United States by not promoting aggressively, sadly typical for Greek companies who think advertising isn't important, even to Greeks around the world who are taken for granted.

Kathimerini cited a report by the Greek Consulate in Toronto on the Canadian olive oil market that showed virgin olive oil imports in Canada rose 17.16 percent in 2020 from 2019 in value and 34.89 percent.

The main supplier was Italy, accounting for 40 percent of imports – much of it Greek in origin despite labels that say Italy, however – followed by Tunisia, Spain, and then Greece.

Greek olive oil exports declined 4 percent in value during the COVID-19 pandemic year on an annual basis but expanded 8 percent in volume, which the paper noted meant it's not exported as a high value product, wrote Dimitra Manifava.

She said the Italians have invested in standardizing olive oil, mixing Italian product with Greek, and using Italian restaurants as ambassadors while the Tunisians have aggressively been marketing their olive oil and the Mediterranean Diet, which should be synonymous with Greece.

The competition doesn't end there. Even California is jumping in and countries such as Morocco, France, Egypt, and Australia are gaining on Greece, which should be the world's standard bearer for the product that is the nucleus of a healthy diet and lifestyle, not a place with more desert than trees.

Curiously, Greece is only fourth in the world behind Spain, Italy, and Turkey in olives production but farther behind in having a unified campaign in letting the world know about the quality of Greek olive oil.

This won't change. Two years ago right here the problem was noted and little to nothing has been done to change it even as Greek olive oil keeps winning international competitions, but the government and producers don't capitalize on the liquid gold – despite EU funds for advertising and marketing.

Politico pointed to the irony of the loss, noting that famed poet and Nobel Prize winner Odysseas Elytis wrote that through the ages of occupation and setbacks that Greece would always be able to resurrect itself if it was left with only an olive, a vine, and a boat.

Just 27 percent of Greek output is labeled and branded in Greece, according to the National Bank of Greece, with Politico saying that some blame a system of agricultural cooperatives tied to political cronyism, others saying farmers don’t know how to guarantee consistent quality to retailers and the new New Democracy government in no rush to fix it.

Like a steadily increasing number of Greek producers, Kolalas has taken the bold step of cutting free from the local cooperative to bottle his own branded oil: Ev Zin, which means "live the good life" in Greek.

The traditional Greek model is that farmers, who usually only have a very small number of trees, need to pool their oil at a cooperative to accumulate the volumes required for export.  

But the model has fierce critics, who argue co-ops have been irreparably tarnished by corruption, at which Greece could win any international competition, and has taken away a critical tool to gain world market share.

So unless Greece wants to see California pass it, someone in the business in Greece needs to stop this from slipping away.