The fresh test

Local lab making the grade for olive oil industry

Agbiolab lab Manager and Principal Liliana Scarafia.

Agbiolab lab Manager and Principal Liliana Scarafia.

Photo by John Domogma

Tucked among the almond orchards in Durham is an unassuming laboratory that’s become a local resource for the global olive oil industry: Agbiolab, which provides olive and olive oil analytical services for growers and mills. Founded in 2008, the private company assists its clients in ensuring the quality of seeds, oil and plant material—helping them manage risk and make objective business decisions.

“We assist olive oil producers, traders and buyers to determine oil grade based on the USDA and international standards,” explained Carlos Machado, general manager for Agbiolab. “We serve producers that are pursuing extra virgin olive oil certification by the California Olive Oil Council, or those participating in international competitions that require analytical certification.”

Olive oil is similar to fruit juice in that it tastes best when fresh, and Agbiolab provides both chemical and sensory assessments to determine its grade/quality. “Extra virgin olive oil comes from the first press of the olive and is free of additives,” said Machado.

Its services aren’t limited to just the oil; Agbiolab will test just about anything related to olive crops.

“Our lab manager and principal, Liliana Scarafia, is an agronomist familiar with olive plant breeding and genetics,” Machado said. “Suppose a European stock, when shipped to the U.S., gets mixed up or perhaps it mutates. Agbiolab can determine the variety by extracting DNA from the plant’s leaves. Our analysis of olive tree root stock can identify the most genetically robust varieties.”

Machado added that the company also can help growers evaluate their best harvest time and even consult on property transactions. “Suppose a property includes an old olive orchard. The potential buyer will want to know what [kinds of trees] they are. We can conduct genetic tests to determine the variety.”

As founder and co-owner, Scarafia is an agronomist—someone who studies soil, plant sciences and crop management—with more than 25 years of experience in science and applied genetics. “[She] is the lead entrepreneur, the lead dreamer at Agbiolab,” said Machado, whose duties include marketing, financial development, educating people and meeting customers. “She recognized an industry niche.”

More than 160 olive varieties are grown in California. And while many of the state’s olives are canned—as either black-ripe or green-ripe olives—it’s olive oil that’s hot right now. “The table olive industry is not experiencing growth like the olive oil industry,” Machado said, “however, olive oil production is increasing. Buyers are paying top price.”

The California Olive Oil Council estimates a record-breaking 4 million gallons of California extra virgin olive oil for the 2015 harvest, surpassing the 2014 production of 2.4 million gallons. As of January 2015, more than 35,000 acres of olives, by more than 400 growers, have been planted in California for the production of olive oil.

But Agbiolab doesn’t work solely with producers in California. “Our customers mostly originate from North America (U.S. and Mexico),” Machado said, “though we also work with importers from Greece, Italy, Spain, North Africa (Tunisia), South America (Peru, Uruguay, Argentina) and even a few years ago, Israel.”

But, as Machado was quick to point out, the quality of the oil coming from California is among the finest in the world. “Olive oil producers in the Central Valley, Napa, Sonoma and the Northern Sacramento valleys are earning acclaim,” he said. “They’re winning awards at renowned events such as the New York International Olive Oil competition.”

“Olive oil is healthy, it’s tasty,” Machado added, clearly enthusiastic about the product his company works so closely with. “That’s why I’m bullish on olive oil.”