While this year’s harvest is leaving the olive groves for processing, I find myself yet again wondering what laws are for. Legal experts will have their precise and complex answers, but I think that most of us ordinary commentators would say that laws are here to codify and regulate relations among citizens and between citizens and the state, with the ultimate supreme objective of safeguarding and protecting people.
The laws concerning olive oil, and the associated long-standing debate about origins, are a good workout for anyone wanting to think about this issue. The promotion and defense of quality are based on protecting and focusing on origins, which are always connected to a specific locality. There isn’t a single quality food product which does not have roots and identity (and I feel that consumer aversion to GMOs is partly due to the fact that we cannot recognize a connection to ourselves or other people in food containing them).
The defense and promotion of a product’s origins (i.e. the characteristics, identity and culture of the local area) is an essential feature for producers of quality food. This was again confirmed in the meetings addressing this issue at Terra Madre 2006, as in 2004.
The concept is equally clear for the rapidly growing numbers of discerning consumers: when presented with alternatives they will always choose the product that says where it is from. It is not a question of being nationalistic: if supermarkets stocked bottles of olive oil from Malta, Spain, Greece, France or Portugal, discerning and curious consumers would want to give them a try.
Yet while producers and consumers have sharpened their awareness of these issues, legislation is inexplicably becoming blunter. It is unfocused and lacks bite. European laws regulating olive oil come down strongly against the purchase of bulk unbottled oil (there are some justifications for this, but it ignores the strength and value of a trusting relationship between the producer and consumer, which is something to be consolidated or rebuilt), but regulations continue to shy away from requiring the origin of olives to be indicated on labels.
And I repeat my question: what are laws for? Who and what is being protected by these laws? Producers of low quality olive oil are obviously “people” entitled to fair protection and safeguards—but only as far as their civil rights are concerned, not their industrial interests.
The time is ripe (to tell the truth, I see signs of overripeness!) for us to start serious work on this issue. We can begin with oil, but need to get moving because there is a lot more to do. Food has always told stories about men, women and places; silent food is suspect.
First printed in La Stampa on November 20, 2006
Adapted by Ronnie Richards