Bayamim Haheim Bazman Hazeh: Olive Oil – The Contemporary Industry of Antiquity

Published Winter 2008

Olive oil, the liquid gold of the ancients, was touted for its nutritional, medicinal, and cosmetic value.  As a fuel, olive oil illuminated the home; as a food ingredient, it was a feast to the palate.  Olive oil production is one of the world’s oldest industries.  Interestingly, much of this ancient industry has not changed over the millennia.

As the numerous olive oil brochures of the Mediterranean coastal region proudly claim, the olive oil industry dates back over 5000 years, as evidenced by the discovery of a 5000 year old olive oil earthenware vessel in Turkey.  Needless to say, the shemen zayis (olive oil) as mentioned in the Torah, which was given 3300 years ago, is one of the seven special species of Eretz Yisroel.  The Torah requires the purest of pure olive oil, shemen zayis zach, to light the menorah.  Olive oil was an integral part of the service in the Bais Hamikdash, the Holy Temple.  The olive branch is considered a symbol of peace and was also brought back to Noah’s ark by the dove, signaling that the end of their year long confinement during the flood was in sight.

Today, olive oil’s popularity has dramatically increased and has taken the health conscious market by storm.  Premium quality olive oil under reliable kosher certification is imported from Crete, Greece, Italy, Morocco, Spain, Turkey, Tunisia, and of course Israel.

The Star-K hotline receives numerous questions regarding the kashrus of olive oil.  What is the difference between the processing of olive oil and other vegetable oils?  What exactly is extra virgin olive oil?  Are there additional kashrus concerns?  Let us take a closer look at the contemporary industry of antiquity.

What Is Vegetable Oil?
Olive, corn, soybean and all other seed oils fall into the general family of oils known as vegetable oils.  Vegetable oil is one of the liquid substances that is extracted from the vegetable.  Vegetable oil is almost entirely made up of the fat of the vegetable.  It can be liquid at room temperature, as in the case of corn, cottonseed, soybean, or olive oil.  In the case of cocoa butter, coconut, or palm oil, the oil is solid at room temperature.  Some vegetable oils are extracted from the seed of the vegetable, as in corn, soybeans, peanuts, hazelnuts, and sunflowers.  Some vegetable oils come from the “fruit of the vegetable,” as in olive and palm.

A variety of processes are used to extract oils.  Chemical extraction uses heat and solvents.  Cold pressing, also known as physical or mechanical extraction, does not use processing aids.  All varieties of vegetable oils are expressed through chemicals and heat. Cold pressing is unique to olive oil.

There are two types of chemical extraction.  One method uses high heat and a solvent, such as hexane, to draw out the oil.  The solvent is then evaporated, leaving behind the vegetable oil.  Expellar pressing, another method of chemical extraction, expresses the vegetable oil through high heat and pressure.  The freshly extracted vegetable oil is known as crude vegetable oil, which is dark and generally bitter, necessitating further refining before becoming an edible oil.

The Cold Pressing Miracle
Olive oil is truly one of Hashem’s unique creations.  It is unique because olive oil is the only fruit oil that can be extracted through cold pressing.  This means that the oil only needs to be squeezed out; no further refining is required and it is ready for consumption.  Although the heavy grindstones and millstones that crushed and expressed the olive oil in ancient times have given way to mechanical crushers and centrifuges, cold pressing extraction has remained virtually unchanged. Once separated, the freshly squeezed olive oil needs no further refining.  The olive oil’s quality is rated by its acidity content.  If there is little or no acidity, then this supreme quality olive oil is labeled extra extra virgin; up to .5% acidity, the oil is considered extra virgin; from 1 to 1.5% acidity is virgin olive oil.  These naturally squeezed oils are robust, flavorful and full bodied!  The oil is filtered through a cold filter press and is ready to go.

In the event that the cold pressed olive oil’s acidity level is too high, the oil would be too bitter to consume.  Refining in a manner similar to the other crude vegetable oils would be necessary.

Refining Vegetable Oil
Four basic steps are used to refine oil:  Neutralization and Separation, Bleaching and Deodorizing.

  • Neutralization and Separation:  When an oil is neutralized, sodium hydroxide, also known as caustic soda, is added to lower the acidity.  This neutralizes the bitter taste of the crude oil by combining with the oil to create a sodium salt which is then separated out from the oil and used for soap stock.  The neutralized oil is then ready for bleaching.
  • Bleaching:  Diatomaceous earth is added to bleach and absorbs the dark colored particles of the oil, in order to give it a clear color.
  • Deodorization:  Any off smell that the oil may have is then removed through a process known as deodorization.  The oil is heated to very high temperatures in a   12 meter tall deodorizer.  Vacuum and high heat remove any smell.  The result is a clear, odorless, refined vegetable oil.

In the event that a refinery processes only vegetable oil, the kashrus issues regarding equipment are minimal.  In the past, it was customary for many of the oil refineries in the U.S. to refine tallow, rendered beef fat or lard, as well as vegetable oil on the same equipment.  Cleaning and kosherizing a 12 meter high deodorizer that has been deodorizing tallow is nearly impossible; ask any housewife who has to clean a greasy, oily, caked-on frying pan, and then multiply it by 12 meters!  Consequently, many reliable kashrus agencies would not kosher certify vegetable oil that was deodorized on a common animal/vegetable deodorizer.  Although animal/vegetable refineries have greatly diminished in the past 20 years, they still exist and the kashrus issues in an animal/vegetable plant are still critical.  Due to these issues, any refined vegetable oil or any product containing vegetable oil requires reliable kosher certification.1

Naming the Olive Oil
Often, we see (on the supermarket shelves) many varieties of olive oil alongside the extra virgin olive oil sold under the following “noms de market”:  pure olive oil, extra light, or refined pomace olive oil.  What are they?  Pure olive oil is a combination of extra virgin and refined olive oil.  Extra light is the popular name for refined olive oil.  Pomace olive oil is the refined oil that is extracted through a second heat extraction.  After cold pressing, the pressed olive pulp undergoes secondary high heat extractions in order to remove any residual olive oil from the olive stock.  This crude oil, also known as pomace oil, would be subjected to the same refining processes as other crude vegetable oils.  Usually, pomace oil is used in manufacturing applications such as the olive oil found in canned sardines. It can also be sold as a consumer item.

Kosher Oil Transport
The Talmud relates2 that when Daniel was in the court of Nevuchadnetzer, King of Babylon, he refrained from eating non-supervised olive oil because he suspected that the oil may have been adulterated or contaminated.  Furthermore, Daniel suspected that the vessels that held the oil could have been smeared with non-kosher fats or oils.  The Talmud questions whether or not the Rabbis should permit non-supervised olive oil.  This was subject to many opinions. The Talmud concludes that Rabbi Yehuda Nasia and his Rabbinical court permitted this oil. According to the halacha, there is no Rabbinical prohibition of shemen akum.

Is there a real concern for olive oil adulteration today?  Given that extra virgin olive oil is such a high end commodity, adulteration is very inviting.  In past years, safeguards have been set up by the International Olive Oil Board to counter this.  The board has a major responsibility to their constituency, namely that the olive oil sold in the U.S. is pure and untainted.  The quality control standards stipulate that each production of extra virgin olive oil must undergo a battery of quality control testing to assure its integrity.  It was assumed that with the producer’s reputation on the line, olive oil adulteration would be almost impossible.  Over the years, however, there have been allegations of compromise in various oil facilities, especially with the proliferation of many food service brands.

In order to gain greater insight and firsthand information in this growing industry, the Star-K joined a number of food associations, including the NAOOA, North American Olive Oil Association.  The NAOOA was created to work on behalf of the olive oil industry on legislative and regulatory issues, to promote and educate consumers about the value and benefits of olive oil, and to serve as a voice of integrity in an industry that has been subjected to alleged improprieties.  Furthermore, the North American Olive Oil Association (NAOOA) has repeatedly voiced these concerns to the international olive oil parent body, the International Olive Oil Council (the IOC), without any satisfactory resolve.
Finally, the NAOOA decided to take matters into their own hands by implementing an olive oil seal program, similar to an olive oil kosher certification to create a U.S. standard of identity for olive oil.  Companies that agree to participate in the seal program must pay an annual fee and submit samples for periodic testing.  The intention of the seal program is to discourage would-be olive oil adulterers.  However, companies must be willing to participate.  Moreover, food service consumers such as restaurants and hotels are more concerned with the bottom line price, rather than aesthetics and quality, so the seal program will be a hard sell. 

Consequently, the Star-K requires kosher certification on all types of olive oil, including extra virgin.  There is a contractual agreement between the manufacturer and the kashrus organizations, as well as an extra set of eyes that inspect the  facilities.  Unfortunately, allegations refuse to go away.

The alleged “counterfeit” oil that has been known to pass as an olive oil, and possibly squeak by the Delta 7 test for olive oil adulteration, is hazelnut oil.  Any other vegetable oil would be spotted immediately.  However, the fear of getting caught, fined and blackballed would give any fraudulent olive oil producer pause.  Although there have been allegations in the past,  none have been conclusively proven with hard core evidence. Nevertheless, the kosher consumer should be aware in light of all of the allegations and the responsive action taken by the NAOOA in implementing the seal program.  Any olive oil, cold pressed or refined, should be purchased with reliable kosher certification.  Furthermore, it is important for the kosher consumer to note that the olive oil producing countries do not refine any animal fats in their oil refineries.

The issues concerning the transport of kosher vegetable oils from global ports is as real today as it was in Nevuchadnetzer’s court.  The wooden cask, clay jug and leather flask have been replaced with 55 gallon drums, five gallon tins and plastic bottles.  New drums and packaging solve the concerns of retail packaging.  However, the new reality of reusable plastic flex tankers and the age old issue of common carrier transport in trucks and ocean vessels is a real kashrus issue.  The problem with shipping kosher oil in a common shipping vessel is further exacerbated, due to possible contamination of kosher oil from non-kosher wine vinegar and/or animal based fats and chemicals shipped in adjoining shipping compartments.  Kosher truck transport has been a front burner issue, as well.  Trucking companies sensitive to the kashrus concerns of kosher certification agencies have set aside dedicated carriers or kosherization protocol for common carriers.  The problem of common shipping carriers has been solved by establishing a criteria for kosher food transport in shipping vessels with the cooperation of tanker transport companies.  The kosher criteria is as follows:  The last three shipments prior to the transporting of kosher certified product have to be kosher grade products.  During the transport of the kosher certified product, no non-kosher product can be shipped in adjoining compartments of the vessel.

Although tallow production is uncommon in olive oil producing countries, tallow based shipments of products such as glycerin from foreign countries are not uncommon.  Therefore, oil refineries still require kosher certification.

Are there any Pesach kashrus concerns?  As we have mentioned, seed oils such as corn and soybean, which are not used for Pesach, are commonly refined in the same facility that produces extra virgin olive oil.  The holding tanks for extra virgin olive oil are always separated from the seed oils.  At times, there could be a co-mingling of common filters, fillers, and hoses.  Furthermore, some facilities add citric acid to extra virgin olive oil although this practice is highly uncommon.

Zayis ra’anan yafeh pri to’ar kara Hashem shimecha.3  Hashem compares the nation of Israel to the beautiful fruit of an olive tree.  The Midrash questions why Israel is likened to an olive tree.  Don’t other beautiful trees or beautiful fruits merit comparison?  Why not the delicious grape or the tall majestic cedar?  The olive tree is strong and durable and can live for centuries.  The main purpose of the olive is not its fruit, but the delicious oil that the fruit contains which is not easily obtained.  First, the tree has to be shaken to loosen the olives.  Then the olives must be crushed, ground and pressed under the weight of heavy mill stones.  Finally, the delicious oil is extracted.  So it is with the nation of Israel, who is constantly  subjected to the pressures and criticism of a hostile world.  It is under these challenges that our great strength, fortitude, and resilience exude from within our national collective self and the sweetness of achdus, unity, comes to the forefront.  Like delicious olive oil, we rise to the occasion and weather the challenges.

1. It is interesting to note, due to our renewed interest in a healthy diet, another seed oil has captured the interest of consumers, namely grape seed oil.  Grape seed, not to be confused with rapeseed, is the actual seed of the grape.  These seeds are the byproduct of the grape crush after the grape juice has been pressed, and indeed contain a small content of grape juice that is recovered after the first crush.  Grape seed oil cannot be extracted from a moist seed.  The seed must be washed and completely dried before processing into grape seed oil.  This oil would also require reliable kosher certification.

2. Avoda Zora 35B and 36A.

3. Yirmiyahu Raba 11.