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The Heartbreak of Global Olive Oil Fraud—and What to Do About It

In the New York Times bestselling Extra Virginity, Tom Mueller writes both a love letter to ages-old, family-run, small batch olive oil purveyors and a scathing survey of the widespread global oil fraud that threatens to destroy the entire industry. If you didn’t think a common kitchen ingredient could be fascinating, you would be wrong, as the book is as compelling as any crime novel—it’s also a must-read for anyone who is interested in food health.

As ancient as civilization itself, olive groves have a magical ability to endure—through frost, through fire, through drought—and in turn, their sacred fruit carries some of that power. Rife with polyphenols (powerful antioxidants that ravage free radicals and are believed to prevent numerous cancers, including breast and prostate), oleocanthal (thought to help prevent Alzheimer’s), and other anti-inflammatory compounds, many believe that the health of Mediterraneans is due in large part to their intense consumption of high quality olive oil. In fact, many shoot it straight down.

This is why it’s so concerning that what lines supermarket shelves—emblazoned with the moniker of extra virgin olive oil—is essentially just deodorized, corrupted, and processed liquid fat, full of the free radicals it purports to attack. In fact, in Extra Virginity, one character Mueller meets, Leonardo Marseglia, the managing director of a big oil conglomerate, suggests that only 2 percent of the world’s olive oil qualifies as extra virgin, that 8 percent is “good,” while 9 percent is “decent.” Much of that 90 percent is referred to as lampante, aka lamp oil, and not suitable for human consumption until refined. On the more tepid end, this “lampante” is made from rotten olives; on the more disturbing end, it might be olive oil, mixed with anything from cheap soy or peanut oil (terrifying for anyone with an allergy) to industrial rapeseed oil, which killed more than a thousand people north of Madrid in the ’80s. The real stuff, the very good stuff, is much like wine: Every harvest carries with it the imprimatur of its trees, of the season, of the environment—and you can taste this sense of place, marked by the important hallmarks of fruitiness, pepperiness, and bitterness. The very fact that what most of us consume in the United States is homogeneous in taste indicates the extreme extent to which it has been doctored, blended, and deodorized.

One potential upside in this global, widespread fraud endemic is that the industry is beginning to boom in the United States, where artisanal companies, particularly in California, are starting to produce very good oil. Meanwhile, the University of California, Davis recently opened an Olive Center, where they are pushing the olive oil agenda, testing supermarket oils (they conducted a test with the Australian Oils Research Laboratory and found that 6 percent of oils were not extra virgin at all), and establishing new standards. This gives Mueller and others hope, because as American consumers become more adept at distinguishing good oil, and as market share increases (the US is in third place in consumption at just under 1 liter per person—hilariously, just 4 percent of the amount that the average Greek consumes), they can demand reform.

Below, Mueller—a freelance journalist based in Italy who writes for The New York Times, The New Yorker, The Atlantic, et al., explains a bit more—along with how to find good oils. (He also maintains a comprehensive database on his own site, Truth in Olive Oil.)

A Q&A with Tom Mueller

Q

Much of the book revolves around the degradation of olive oil and pervasive olive oil fraud—what are companies doing to trick the public, and what are the implications?

A

There are a range of different ways that fraud manifests, though it comes down to the basic principle of buying low and selling high. It’s the key to good business and the key to profitable crime. You can do this in a number of ways with olive oil. The most common is to blend in low-grade olive oil, or other vegetable oils like soybean oil or sunflower oil, which are much cheaper, then sell the resulting mix as “extra virgin olive oil.” I sympathize with the FDA here in the states: It is an extremely important organization that is systemically understaffed and underfunded, meaning that it can’t achieve its mission. And its mission is to ensure that the food and drugs in America are safe for consumers. They don’t have the bandwidth to look into olive oil because it’s too far down the list of priorities when it comes to health risks.

That said, there have been instances in the world where it hasn’t just been an innocuous mix of cheaper vegetable oils. In an extreme case in 1981: 1,200 people died almost instantly and 25,000 people were hospitalized with neurological damage north of Madrid. It was from consuming olive oil that was in large part industrial rapeseed oil. It had an additive in it called aniline, which is a severe neurotoxin. It was one of the worst food catastrophes and food poisoning events in world history. And nobody talks about it.

Here’s the thing: It could happen again because people are playing really fast and loose with olive oil—think about the number of people with a soybean or peanut allergy who have been exposed to adulterated oil that’s been mixed with peanut or soy oil. This is all ironic, because real olive oil is one of the healthiest foods that we know of.

“So when companies refine this really rotten, horrible olive oil, you get something flavorless, odorless—it’s like deodorizing a corpse—it’s still dead, but it doesn’t stink.”

Besides mixing with cheaper oils (for example, soybean costs one tenth of what EVOO costs), you’ll also find companies engaging in the illegal processing of really bad olive oil. It might be from olives that have been sitting on the ground for months, olives that are essentially rotten. They make an ugly, inedible oil that you can’t imagine putting in your mouth, but then it’s refined at a very low temperature, which takes the taste of rancidity out.

Olives are stone fruits like cherries or plums. And much like fruit juice, extra virgin olive oil should be made from freshly squeezed olives. It’s literally fresh juice—sure, olive oil keeps better than citrus, but you don’t squeeze your oranges on July 1, and drink the juice on August 27.

So when companies refine this really rotten, horrible olive oil, you get something flavorless, odorless—it’s like deodorizing a corpse—it’s still dead, but it doesn’t stink. For the time being, it doesn’t offend your senses because you’ve knocked out the sensory characteristics. The really messed up thing is that you’re selling it NOT ONLY as something edible, but as something that is super healthy.

These are the illegal dodges.

But then there are the legal frauds—things like labeling olive oil “extra light.” I lurk around supermarkets sometimes—the scenes of most of these crimes—and cannot tell you how many times I’ve seen women, in particular, gravitate to those bottles. It has the same 120 calories per tablespoon as any other olive oil—it just happens to have all the goodness refined out of it. This is illegal in Europe, but still legal in the States.

Q

Why are the EU and FDA so loathe to get involved, and what does this do to the small purveyors who are trying to get it right?

A

The FDA is overworked and under-skilled in the olive landscape. The EU is doing it a bit differently. They’ve at least set up a working group to address olive oil fraud. The US imports 98 percent of our olive oil—the EU knows that it’s a huge problem, and that it’s disappearing over the Atlantic.

The Italian parliament is doing a bit better than the EU. They’ve actually passed a significantly more restrictive olive oil law that raises the bar of olive oil quality. It gives taste tests a lot more legal weight. (So Italy is doing better than the EU, and the EU is doing better than the FDA.)

“Many small purveyors are teetering on the edge of bankruptcy because they’re facing off against false competition that is selling inferior product.”

Many small purveyors are teetering on the edge of bankruptcy because they’re facing off against false competition that is selling inferior product. Real EVOO costs a lot more to make than fake extra virgin, and the producers of real EVOO have much higher costs and so their margins are bad—yet they have to stay within striking distance of market rates. The bulk price is so ridiculously low that it is physically impossible that it be EVOO—to actually pick olives off the tree and make it in a modern mill…it’s impossible.

The people who make olive oil really well have made a name for themselves like fine wine. That said, many producers in Italy, Spain, and Greece are under major price pressure. The temptation to cheat must be so huge. While it’s not physically impossible for a big company to make EVOO it just don’t seem to happen very often. Medium-sized companies in Spain, Italy, California, and Australia are making first-rate olive oil. They’re the exception that proves the rule.

Q

Is one of the issues that people expect all olive oil to taste the same?

A

When I went to the big Bertoli plant—they said to me with a lot of pride—look, our consumers want to buy the same thing, they expect it to be identical and so we make it identical. They buy a huge number of oils from around the Mediterranean that they then blend together to reach that flavor profile.

The problem is that their olive oil has legally represented taste and flavor flaws, so it’s not extra virgin. It might have rancidity of three, and mold of four—these issues are 100 percent documented in the law—but nobody obeys the law.

The homogenization of big oil doesn’t necessarily involve fraud—though it often does—but it’s hard to say because US standards are not enforced. Carpelli, Sasso, and Dante—all the big ones—sell defective oil. The Bertoli oil in America is even worse: They’re selling crappier olive oil where local laws will not catch them out.

Q

When it comes to health, why is olive oil so powerful? What are its purported (or proven) powers?

A

The thing that’s so disturbing about what’s happening with olive oil is that it’s a double fraud because people are being given something that is not healthy.

For instance, if you get oil that’s rancid, you’re getting oil that has free radicals and peroxides in it. Free radicals accelerate tissue decay, i.e., you should not be eating them. Meanwhile you THINK you’re buying the keystone of the Mediterranean diet, this magnificent fresh oil with all this poetic, nutritional value. It’s really two frauds for the price of one.

“Think of someone on doctor’s orders who believes that they’re using olive oil, when really they’re consuming low-grade liquid fat.”

You should be consuming the anti-inflammatories and antioxidants and vitamins and minerals that are in EVOO, which comes from this fresh squeezed juice of olives, freshly picked from an olive tree. We should be consuming the olive oil that has stood the Mediterraneans in such good stead when it comes to their health. With much of the olive oil in the world, you’re getting a very faint shadow of that. It’s an incredible rip-off. Think of someone on doctor’s orders who believes that they’re using olive oil, when really they’re consuming low-grade liquid fat.

Q

What are the qualities of EVOO officially? And what should they be?

A

The weird thing about all of this is: There is some great olive oil—and it has a lot in common with great wine. Imagine if all the big wine countries decided to go for rock-bottom quality, and decided that the label should mean nothing—“We’ll call it ‘extra-great’ wine even though it might be corked.” They would destroy billions of dollars of value merely by taking the ability to differentiate away from the consumer. With wine, the consumer can distinguish between cooking wine and special anniversary wine.

Olive oil should be the same. Instead, companies are burning so much value by homogenizing olive oil into a dead, liquid fat and then trumpeting its quality. They should be celebrating the really high quality stuff—and giving it a fair market. It’s so short sighted.

“There are 17 official taste flaws. Each of those taste flaws indicates an error in the picking of the fruit, or the production of the juice, or the storage of the oil. And this isn’t just finicky foodies arguing about unimportant things—it’s about health.”

As a consumer it’s really tough to figure out what is what, and to find oil that hasn’t been adulterated. You really need to know who is running the shop. You need to be able to look at the label and determine where on the planet it was made; who specifically made it; when they picked the olives; when they made the oil. Then you need to be able to smell and taste the oil and process what your senses tell you.

In the European Union, in order to qualify as extra virgin, you have to pass a number of chemical and sensory tests, which have equal importance before the law. You can doctor and blend and produce an oil that might pass the chemical test—but if it doesn’t taste good, it doesn’t qualify. It has to have a bitterness, pungency, fruitiness…essentially there are 17 official possible taste flaws. Each of those taste flaws indicates an error in the picking of the fruit, or the production of the juice, or the storage of the oil. And this isn’t just finicky foodies arguing about unimportant things—it’s about health. It’s not a snobbery thing, it’s the nuts and bolts of food administration, as the sensory components are part of the law. Unfortunately, it’s just not followed—companies will flash a few completely irrelevant chemical parameters in front of you and evade the real issue.

Q

So where can you find good oils?

A

There are some boutique places, like Eataly, that import excellent olive oil, but to truly map good oils across America, you have to do a lot of testing. It’s very arduous and expensive. [Check out Mueller’s website for some of his recommendations.]

The thing is that if consumers start to pay attention and taste really fine, artisanal olive oils, much like wine, they’ll be able to tell when olive oil has been deodorized to disguise rancidity. One of the problems is that these companies believe that consumers don’t know enough to care. And we need to change that.

Q

Your book is a love letter to small batch purveyors around the globe—any that stand out?

A

It really revolves around what is real Italian food, as the culinary density there is like nowhere else in the world—and it’s still alive and kicking. I met these small family purveyors: Groves of ancient rooted trees that can only be handpicked, despite industrialization. Slow food was born in Italy, and EVOO is a celebration of people who still do it.

Anyone can come up with a label and some storytelling, but the real art is in these tough farm communities where they are doing this thing with their hands. It’s not just about a stupid bottle of olive oil. It is another level of commitment, a guarantee of quality, and unfortunately a dying race. This is an issue of fair trade—first world fair trade.

“The olive oil industry has really become a symbol for what’s wrong with food in the world: Everything you look at in the supermarket has the same issue and same problems, which is a lack of transparency in regulation and labeling.”

The olive oil industry has really become a symbol for what’s wrong with food in the world: Everything you look at in the supermarket has the same issue and same problems, which is a lack of transparency in regulation and labeling.

It’s funny, but in America, the scandal is not what’s illegal—the scandal is what’s legal. The American system almost always takes the side of big business—you have to break normative understanding of global creators to actually dig into and get some sort of legal reaction from large industries. That is particularly true in food.

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