Regulation of the Day 231: Serving Olive Oil

When you sit down at a Mediterranean restaurant, your server will typically set down some bread on the table, then pour some olive oil into a saucer or small bowl for dipping. Many restaurants also keep small jugs of olive oil as part of their table setting for general use. It’s a delicious way to begin a meal.

New European Union regulations are set to change this centuries-long practice. Starting January 1, 2014, any olive oil served at table “must be in pre-packaged, factory bottles with a tamper-proof dispensing nozzle and labelling in line with tight EU standards.” That means no more saucers of oil for dipping, and no more refillable jugs at the table.

Most complaints about the rule have been directed at the EU’s micromanagerial tendencies, and there is certainly something to it. But there is also a public choice angle that’s worth looking at.

Many restaurants buy their olive oil from small family farms that aren’t able to comply with the new labeling and sealing standards. Restaurants buy from them because many diners prefer their olive oil to the more homogeneous product put out by larger firms. These larger firms are also precisely the people who will benefit from the new rules. A public choice theorist would point out that the big producers very likely had something to do with pushing for their passage, and their added business comes at the expense of smaller farms — and consumers’ palettes.

This kind of rent-seeking behavior is all too common. And the more regulations there are, the more rent-seeking one sees. These olive oil rules are only the latest example. Most supporters of the rule might be motivated by health and safety, but certain other supporters are more concerned with securing an artificial competitive advantage for themselves.