There was a time when the Spanish table olive had achieved something no other Spanish food product had: it had indisputably conquered the US market. However, in recent years, other countries—such as Argentina and Chile—have started to compete fiercely for that same market, and at times through Spanish companies and farmers.
The Spanish Association of Table Olive Exporters (Asemesa) concedes that, currently, "Our rivals are increasingly closing in on our leading position. We export 65% of production, Spanish olives are the most highly valued and its industry is the most modern", says Antonio de Mora, managing director of Asemesa.
The US, which is the primary destination for Spanish table olives, accounts for 22% of exports and contributed more than 170 million euros in 2012.
According to data from customs, the second-largest importer of Spanish olives is Italy, accounting for 10%, followed by Russia (7.6%), France and Germany (6.2% each).
An Andalusian triangle
The leading table olive packaging and sales companies are more than familiar with this export data. The current president of Asemesa is also the founder and managing director of Agrosevilla, the largest table olive exporter in the world.
The company has performed especially well in the last decade, doubling revenues. Exports account for 95% of total sales, and its olives are sent to 75 countries on the five continents.
The US clearly accounts for a notable portion of its exports. "Our subsidiary in the US is the country's leading olive importer", says José Manuel Rodríguez Bordallo, managing director of the cooperative, who is beginning to see the end of his term after four decades at the helm of the group.
Another Spanish table olive heavyweight is Angel Camacho, which sold 50 million kilos of olives in 90 countries and exports approximately 30 million kilos, of which 50% head to the US. The group also has subsidiaries in foreign countries: the US, the UK, Poland and Argentina. According to the group: "Every country or market is its own world, with its own needs and habits."
Aceitunas Torrent, in Aguilar de la Frontera (Córdoba), is another major player in the Spanish table olive market. It started out in the 1850s producing table olives using the Hojiblanca variety. This presented a challenge since, at that time, such exports were prohibited. Finally, in 1965-66, companies in Málaga and Córdoba provinces were allowed to export with sole authorization to send their goods to the US and Canada.
Ironically, Hojiblanca is currently the most common variety of table olive used and exported, although Torrent sells traditional Gordal and Manzanilla varieties as well. The company is also well-known for its excellent black olives, which have set the standard for the rest of its products.
The US is not a priority market for Torrent, as the company considers it to be "highly saturated" and prefers "to focus on countries with less competition". In fact, America accounted for just 5% of last year's revenues.
It currently sells to 76 countries, and the strongest markets are primarily Arab countries, followed by Europe. In the last few years, it has noticed an increase in olive consumption in the post-Soviet states and Asia.
The revenue forecast for 2013 suggests that the company will obtain 20 million euros, which reflects growth of over 100% between 2004 and 2012.