UC Davis launches olive oil center

Hoping to do for olives and olive oil what it has done for grapes and wine, the University of California, Davis, launched the first university-based olive research and education center in North America.

The center has been established with a combined $75,000 in seed funding from the campus's College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences and the Office of Research. Start-up funds totaling $25,000 also have been provided by Corto Olive, the Musco Family Olive Co., Bell-Carter Foods, the California Olive Oil Council and the California Olive Ranch.

"The university had the privilege of helping move California wines into the world's highest rankings," says Dan Flynn, executive director of the new center. "Now we look forward to harnessing UC Davis' research expertise to help vault California olives and olive oil into that same league."

Alan Greene, president of the California Olive Oil Council and a vice president of the California Olive Ranch in Oroville, says: "The olive center will help all olive producers, large and small, tackle the pressing challenges facing our industry. We anticipate that the center will enhance the economic viability of the California olive industry in an extremely competitive international marketplace."

UC Davis, with its faculty of plant and food scientists plus more than 2,000 olive trees in the campus landscape and research orchards, is uniquely positioned to host the new center. Its olive trees comprise what is thought to be the most extensive collection in North America.

In 2005, UC Davis began pressing and processing olive oil from its trees, using the proceeds to help cover the cost of maintaining the trees. In 2007, the campus processed 425 gallons, which translated into 6,500 bottles of olive oil.

Flynn, who manages UC Davis' olive oil production program, says the new center's initial priorities will include strengthening California's olive oil labeling statutes, conducting research on issues identified by olive-oil and table-olive producers, and identifying better laboratory methods for detecting adulterated olive oil. The center also plans to establish a certified-organic olive orchard and will develop a research taste panel to help improve the quality of olive oils.

Serving as faculty co-directors for the center will be Charles Shoemaker, a professor in the Department of Food Science and Technology, and Vito Polito, a professor in the Department of Plant Sciences.

The center's program will be devoted to teaching, research and educational activities. As planned, the teaching component will eventually include a general-education class on olive oil; student internships; and short courses on olive growing, and olive-oil processing and sensory evaluation.

An olive-oil processing plant will be placed in the new Robert Mondavi Institute for Wine and Food Science complex, which is under construction and scheduled for completion in June. The new Olive Center will include state-of-the-art milling equipment.

The olive-oil processing plant will enable the center to examine the effect of different olive varieties, environmental factors and growing practices on olive-oil quality. Researchers affiliated with the center will also explore potential health benefits of olives and olive oil, pest management strategies and mechanical harvesting improvements.