Staff Writer
Columbus CEO

c.2013 New York Times News Service

MADRID — Every morning, cafes here fill up with people enjoying a typical Spanish breakfast, including pouring olive oil out of a plain glass cruet onto a slice of toasted bread.

The traditional cruet, however, will be replaced by a labeled, sealed and nonreusable bottle or other type of container under stricter oil bottling rules that take effect Wednesday.

Spain is the world’s largest producer of olive oil. The new regulations were created mainly to improve food hygiene. But oil producers also hope the rules will help them build stronger recognition for their brands and even bolster sales and exports to markets like the United States, where Spanish oil has played second fiddle to Italy’s.

Spain acted on its own after Germany and other North European countries, which consume but do not produce olive oil, blocked a proposal by the European Commission last spring to impose such legislation across the 28-nation European Union.

Northern countries said tougher rules would produce both additional costs and more waste, with used and half-empty bottles thrown out rather than reused. British Prime Minister David Cameron also pilloried the regulatory plan as evidence of unnecessary interventionism by Brussels bureaucrats. Olive oil, Cameron claimed in May, is “exactly the sort of area that the European Union needs to get right out of, in my view.”

A similar debate has taken place within Spain. But it has been more subdued because the Madrid government clearly sided with oil producers, saying stricter rules would raise health safety, by guaranteeing the oil’s authenticity, as well as give consumers an opportunity to identify the quality and origin of their oil.

The Spanish hotel federation, which represents more than 100,000 businesses, has opposed the stricter rules, echoing the recent concerns in Germany and other northern countries.

With Spain recently emerging from a two-year recession but still struggling with anemic household spending, “we’re facing an unjustified and unnecessary change that adds costs at the wrong time,” said Emilio Gallego Zuazo, the secretary general of the federation.

Cafe owners now generally fill their cruets from 5-liter plastic containers. The labeling rules do not apply to olive oil used within the kitchen, but the cost of the oil that has been offered in cruets is likely to increase three- to fivefold, depending on what alternative bottling and labeling is selected, according to Gallego Zuazo.

Some restaurants may decide to charge for premium olive oil, but most are expected to continue providing bottled oil free. Another perhaps cheaper option is to switch to single-serve packets like those used for ketchup or mayonnaise.