BEIRUT: Fraud and unregulated imports are wreaking havoc on the olive oil sector, farmers warned Monday, calling on the government to clamp down on violators and pay for Lebanese Army purchases due since 2011. “The olive oil sector is being subjected to a dangerous scheme, whereby traders make huge profits re-exporting imported olive oil after labeling it as Lebanese,” George al-Aynati, head of the Koura Olive Farmers Association, said at a news conference held at the UNESCO palace in Beirut.
The cost of imported olive oil is no more than $30 per 20-liter canister, he said, adding that local producers cannot compete at such a low price level.
Aynati added that olive oil marketed in bottles domestically is being mixed with other vegetable oils without being correctly labeled.
“On what basis are they allowed to market it as olive oil and sell the bottle for more than LL6,000?” he asked.
Lebanese olive oil, sourced by many Lebanese directly from farmers across the country, usually costs at least $100 per 20-liter canister, depending on the quality.
The Agriculture Ministry recently put the number of olive growers in Lebanon at 16,9512. The average field size, for 53 percent of farmers, is less than 0.5 hectares, meaning cost of production is higher than competitors in Syria, as well as those in Europe and North Africa.
“Last year was the worst ever for olive farmers in Lebanon due to unprecedented dumping of both olives and oil,” Aynati said. “Some farmers were not even able to sell one canister of olive oil.”
Head of the Lebanese Farmers Association Antoine Howayek echoed Aynati’s views, adding that the conflict raging across Syria caused a more than 50 percent drop in prices of olives, as farmers faced difficulties selling their produce.
“Some Lebanese olive oil traders bought large quantities of olives at as low as $0.30 per kilogram, pressed it in Lebanon and are selling the oil [abroad] much cheaper than the locally produced oil,” he said.
Aynati also said that payment for 50,000 canisters, sourced by the government for the Lebanese Army 14 months ago, has not yet been received.
He called for a national plan to shore up the sector and for traders to be forced to label mixed and imported olive oil appropriately.
He said the government should protect olive oil producers and slap an import tax of at least LL10,000 per 20-liter canister of olive oil, and LL2,000 per kilogram of imported olives.
“ Lebanon should exclude olives and olive oil from any free trade agreements,” Aynati added.
He also suggested that farmers would accept a cap on retail prices at $100 for extra-virgin olive oil and $80 for virgin olive oil, so long as protective measures were taken.