The era of the traditional olive oil dispensers regularly seen on restaurant tables across Spain has come to an end. Beginning in January, the country's more than 350,000 bars, restaurants and catering establishments will have to serve the "liquid gold" in non-refillable, tamper-proof bottles or capsules.
The Popular Party (PP) government has used a royal decree to adapt consumer habits to the new rules, stipulating that oil "will have to be presented in labeled packaging with an opening system that loses its integrity after a single use, and a protection system that prevents refilling once the original contents have been used up."
While the Agriculture Ministry only sees good things in this decision, bar and restaurant owners fear rising costs for themselves. Meanwhile, consumers also suspect that a new, smaller, more personalized package will mean a higher final cost.
"The main thing is that this government decision improves the quality and authenticity guarantee of the oils that the end consumer gets," says Fernando Burgaz, director general of the Food Industries department. He explains that the new formats will range from 250 milliliters to 500 and 750 milliliters. Although the measure goes into effect on January 1, establishment owners will have until February 28 to use up existing stock.
This government decision improves the guarantee of authenticity"
Agriculture Minister Miguel Arias Cañete insists that non-refillable oil bottles will benefit exports. Despite a bad production year, Spain remains the world's top exporter of olive oil and also the main producer, at 1.3 million tons.
"For most of the 57 million tourists who visit the country annually, their contact with olive oil is reduced to consumption in bars and restaurants, so they need to find a clearly identified product that can serve as a hook for future exports," claims Burgaz.
Anuncia Carpio, a biologist specializing in oils and fats at the Institute of Fats in Seville, believes that having each oil package labeled with a specific brand will ultimately help the consumer. "The logical thing is for oil, either good or bad, to be backed by a brand that is accountable for the quality of the product and that can be blamed for its faults or praised for its virtues."
Carpio explains that oil oxidizes on contact with light, air and high temperatures. The transparent oil dispensers that are commonly found in Spanish eating establishments are therefore detrimental to its quality. "The reality is that the oil in most places is not good quality. Each time the container gets refilled, the air makes the oil rancid. Also, let's just say that the dispenser spout does not get cleaned as well as it should. It is not realistic to think that all establishment owners put the container in the dishwasher every time it needs to be refilled."
Let's just say that the dispenser spout does not get cleaned as well as it should"
The Spanish Hostelry Federation rejects any suggestion that oil quality goes down in establishments where it gets served in refillable dispensers. "All the oil that gets served in Spain is absolutely top quality," argues its secretary-general, Emilio Gallego.
In fact, establishment owners are showing the strongest opposition to the government's decision. They fear that this new obligation to have individual one-use containers will be a new blow to a sector that is already being "ravaged" by the crisis. But while Gallego would not admit that the price increase would be relayed to the consumer, others admit it outright.
"They would have to find packaging with the lowest possible cost, so we don't have to add it to the final price the customer pays," explains Gabriel Archilleta, a restaurant owner from Jaén, Spain's main olive oil-producing area.
Alberto Fernández, of another establishment called Casa Herminia, also in Jaén, is hopeful that the new packaging "will convey to customers the quality of virgin olive oil."
The government tried to get Brussels to OK a similar measure in all EU states
The petition to ban refillable containers started in Andalusia, which represents 80 percent of Spanish oil production and 40 percent of global output. The Spanish government even tried to get Brussels to approve a similar measure in all European member states, but following pressure and near-mockery from countries such as Britain, The Netherlands and Germany, the EU decided to rescind the initiative. Some member states felt that the European bureaucratic machine was exceeding its limits and micromanaging people's lives.
Despite this setback, Spain - "and Portugal," the ministry insists - have gone ahead with the ban anyway. Italy is also considering it.
Daniel López, head of the waste department at the green group Ecologists in Action, underscores one of the main criticisms leveled at the ban: the leftover packaging.
"This new obligation to have specific packages is nonsense. We have observed that only 30 percent of packaging actually reaches a recycling plant, so obviously there's going to be a lot more waste. Besides, restaurants, if only as a matter of image, will open a new bottle for each group of diners. There will be thousands of packages that end up in a dump," explains López.
There will be thousands of packages that end up in a dump"
The activist notes that the new rule contradicts waste reduction and responsible food consumption policies. Just like Emilio Gallego, of the Hostelry Federation, he fears that all the leftovers will end up in the trash. "Very rarely do customers consume the entire single dose of oil when they pour it on their toast," he says.
Xandra Falcó, of the Marqués de Griñón winery and oil estate, argues that there will be no increase. "The same bottle can be used for several diners. The requirement is that it cannot be refillable, not that a new one be opened for each customer. It's a lot like alcohol bottles. Now, when you go to a bar and order a drink, they don't open the bottle for you but there's a guarantee that the establishment cannot freely refill it," she says.
Falcó also notes that the best way to preserve the properties of olive oil is to store it inside a dark glass jug or metal container. The fact that oil can be kept in cans allows restaurant owners to spend less, since this material is cheaper than glass. Ecologists in Action's López sees a problem with this, however, because glass gets recycled much more than aluminum or tin.
Producers are the biggest supporters of the ban. Juan Luis Ávila, of the Coordinator of Farmer and Rancher Organizations, believes it is "essential" to give the olive oil sector mechanisms to ensure greater quality.
To Agustín Rodríguez, of the Union of Smallholder Farmers of Andalusia (UPA), it is just "common sense" to approve a national law to guarantee the quality and safety of oil. His group hopes Spain will reattempt to pressure Brussels into extending the ban across all member states. In the province of Jaén, most establishments have already adapted to a regulation that will be enforceable nationwide in January.
The government of Andalusia was very critical of Brussels' decision to backtrack on the refillable dispenser ban, going as far as to accuse Agriculture Commissioner Dacian Ciolos of yielding to major oil distribution groups that operate in central and northern Europe, making a profit out of the wholesale oil trade.
But Gallegos of the Hostelry Federation has no doubts about the move: "This was not a necessary measure, nor did consumers demand it."