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Greek olive oil could be economy victim

| Tuesday, Feb. 25, 2014, 12:01 a.m.

SIMIZA, Greece — In the olive groves around Ancient Olympia, sanctuary of the Greek gods, the trees were once considered sacred, and in many ways they still are.

Carefully pruned and pampered, they are described by farmers with a reverence that could match the language used by makers of champagne or single malt whisky.

So plans to extend a brutal efficiency drive to olive oil production have been met with anger and disbelief. If proposals from a government-funded study are adopted, olive oil blended with cheaper vegetable oils will soon go on sale as part of an effort to modernize Greece's economy, which was rescued from near bankruptcy four years ago.

One pro-government lawmaker called the proposal a “cause of war,” while olive producers in the fabled hills of the southern Peloponnese region worry that Greece could spoil its own signature product.

Illegal under Greek law, the new product would need to prominently carry the label: “blended olive oil.” EU law does not prohibit blends, which are sometimes used in canned food, including in Spain, the world's largest olive oil producer.

“Greece would lose its monopoly on quality,” olive grower Aris Kolotouros said. “It would create a faceless product.”

Kolotouros, 38, studied plant science in Italy before returning to look after the olive trees planted by his grandfather 80 years ago.

His 3,000-tree grove lies in Greece's olive belt that stretches from north of Olympia — home of the original Olympic games — southward past the city of Kalamata, nestling among ancient temples and mountains that were the landmarks of Greek mythology.

Mountain villages in this area didn't have electricity until the early 1970s, and older residents still remember operating horse-powered stone mills to crush olives.

“I don't agree with this proposal because our effort is based on a quality product,” Kolotouros said, standing next to an enormous pile of pruned olive branches.

“This is our legacy.”

Greece is the world's No.3 olive oil producer, but has been losing ground to leaders Spain and Italy, where farmland is flatter and increasingly mechanized.

The government commissioned the efficiency study from the Paris-based Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development, or OECD, and it returned with a 328-page report of detailed recommendations to change regulations for commonly used products — from books to milk.

It's part of a relentless campaign to slash spending and boost competitiveness that has seen wages and benefits cut severely in a struggle to deal with decades of accumulated debt.

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