Warehouse wholesale company Costco has switched the sourcing of the extra virgin olive oil that goes into its Kirkland Signature 2-liter bottle from Italian sources, to providers from Greece.
This is good news for providers in Greece who have felt the punch of the financial crisis and even better news for the recognition Greek olive oil deserves.
The move across the Ionian Sea comes amid an apocalyptic season for Italy’s olive groves. A hot spring, a rainy summer and a pesky olive-eating fly conspired to create what Italian daily La Repubblica called “the black year of Italian olive oil.”
Production in Italy is expected to drop 34 percent this year, according to the International Olive Oil Council.
Prices have gone up accordingly: Italian extra-virgin olive oil in March was sold by producers for about $2.97 a pound, 84 percent more than a year earlier, according to the council.
For Costco, the reasoning appears to be purely financial— and not because Greek olive oil is far superior to its Italian counterpart. That drastic price hike must have been tough to swallow for the company that’s always looking for a good deal.
Costco Chief Financial Officer Richard Galanti said the availability of the extra-virgin olive oil Costco usually purchases from Italy is down to one-tenth of the normal level.
“We wanted to get a single source of good quality; for this year we went to Greece,” he said.
While Spain, the world’s foremost olive-oil producer, also suffered from some of the same weather events that befell Italy, Greece has been largely spared. Its production is expected to more than double this year, and prices for extra-virgin olive oil are up only 15 percent from last year, at a relatively humble $1.45 a pound.
Greece is the third-largest producer of olive oil, after Spain and Italy. The liquid, long a pillar of Mediterranean cooking, is also a mainstay of the Greek economy. In 2013, Greece exported some $602 million worth of olive oil.
Currently, only about 4 percent of Greek olive oil ends up in the U.S., the second-largest importer of olive oil in the world.
In the United States, the virtues are unsung, says Chef Maria Loi, author of the HarperCollins book The Greek Diet, which includes heavy doses of Greek olive oil.
“For me, Greek olive oil is the staple ingredient— it’s the most important element of Greek cuisine, not only for its taste, but also for its nutritional value.”
Americans think Italy when they think about olive oil, Loi said. It’s time they get to know the best olive in the world— from Greece.
But all of that might change, says Loi.
On Costco’s shelves, the formerly green label and cap of the 2-liter extra-virgin oil bottles are now blue and proudly display the oil’s Greek origin.
“Certainly it’s going to put Greek olive oil on the international food map, because people watch what Costco does,” Loi said.