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Greek olives face squeeze in efficiency drive

By Derek Gatopoulos

Associated Press

Published: Monday, Feb. 24 2014 6:59 a.m. MST

A bottle of oil is seen on most Greek dinner tables, and family connections to a good rural supplier are a source of pride for dwellers of the country's overcrowded cities.

Weak export branding, however, means most of Greece's surplus — much of it top-grade extra virgin oil — is pumped into container trucks and sold cheaply in bulk to nearby Italy to be bottled and branded there.

At Gaea Products, a high-end olive oil exporter in Agrinio, western Greece, production manager Thanasis Kerasiotis inspects operations at a bottling plant in a white coat and hairnet.

He argues that allowing the sale of blended oil would undermine an effort to build stronger Greek brands with this compelling selling point: most growers operate on a small scale and can keep a closer eye on quality.

"We think extra virgin olive oil has a market and can claim a larger share of (international) sales. Greece's competitive advantage compared to Spain or Italy ... is our quality," he said. "If we blend our olive oil, that advantage will be lost."

Not everyone is so pessimistic.

Financial analyst Vangelis Agapitos said the idea could work as long as labeling is clear, and could even help Greek companies reach markets such as China where consumers are becoming more familiar with Western goods.

"We're in a situation where the market for olive oil is expanding dramatically, and I don't think the current supply of olive trees can match the additional demand for olive oil in the foreseeable future. So if that means blending it, that's not a problem providing it's properly labeled and priced," he said.

"The overall message throughout these last years of crisis is that the past can no longer be a guide for future. We need to change and adapt."

AP Television's Theodora's Tongas and Raphael Kominis, and AP Photographer Petros Giannakouris contributed. Online: OECD report: http://goo.gl/PMn5m8 More on Twitter: @dgatopoulos

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