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 Italy and U.S. Battle Olive Oil Fraud:
Are the “Extra Virgins” Even “Virgins” At All?
By the Way…
What’s In Your Cupboard?

By Nancy Loseke

Filed: January 27, 2009

     Italy now has food poilce.  And I’m not talking about the infuriating squad of nutritional Nazis who discourage the enjoyment of just about any food you can think of.  No, these guys are for real.  It’s probable they even have badges. 

     In October, twenty members of a task force graduated from a special course sponsored by Italy’s National olive Association.  Like the
über-serious “don’t-even-think-of-petting-me” luggage-sniffing canines at airport Customs, the Italian food carabinieri have been trained to smell and taste the difference between an extra-virgin olive oil and a fake—one extended by soybean or rapeseed oil, for example—and like wine geeks, can even pin down an oil’s geographical origins.

     Italy, long thought to be the source of the world’s best olive oils, lost considerable face in the international community when it was reported that some of the country’s leading producers of olive oil were perpetrating fraud on consumers there and abroad.

     Most damning was an article by investigative reporter Tom Mueller in the August 13, 2007, issue of The New Yorker ( .  Mueller charged that only 40 per cent of olive oil sold as “extra-virgin” actually met the standards established by the International olive Council (IOC), the Madrid-based organization founded in 1959 to “defend and protect” olive trees and olive oil—and by extension, olive and olive oil consumers.

     Mueller’s bold, pull-no-punches exposé scandalized the olive oil world, and was presumably one of the compelling catalysts for the Italian government’s decision in late 2007 to adopt new labeling laws.  Now, labels must declare where the oil was produced, right down to which farm and which press.  They must also give a precise breakdown of the oils used if the bottle contains a blend.

     That’s the good news.

     The bad news is that the European Union has already challenged the new law.   The E.U. wants compliance to be voluntary.  (Under E.U. rules, olive oil may be sold as Italian even if it contains only a small percentage of Italian oil.)  Self-poilcing—especially in an industry with ties to organized crime—sounds like an impotent solution to a widespread problem.

     To its credit, Italy persists in bringing olive oil villains to justice.  Last March, in a sting called “Golden Oil,” undercover poilce arrested 23 people and shut down 85 farms.   Weeks later, 25,000 liters of suspect oil (much of it destined for the U.S. and German market) were seized.  The suspects—40 of them from nine provinces in northern and southern Italy—were accused of cutting olive oil with sunflower and soybean oil and selling it as extra-virgin.

     “It’s a con, pure and simple, like selling Gucci which isn’t Gucci, or a Rolex which isn’t a Rolex,” said Massimo Gargano, head of Unaprol, the Italian olive producers’ association.

     Governments are getting interested, here and abroad.  But it’s too early for consumers to let their guard down.  For one thing, the U.S. never joined the International olive Council, meaning America has always been a dumping ground for olive oils that couldn’t meet the Council’s rigorous standards.  For another, know that the phrase “Bottled in Italy” means just that.

     The weasel word, of course, is “bottled.”  Yes, the oils may have been “bottled” in Italy, but in all likelihood, the biggest proportion of the oils are from Spain, Greece, and the Middle East, brought through Italian ports on tankers.   I am not saying oils from these other countries are necessarily bad—all of the aforementioned countries are capable of producing exemplary oils—but if you are buying an oil with a bucoilc Italian scene on the label—Italian oil is what you should get.  What would be so wrong with that?

     Specifically, look for oils that say, “100% Prodotto Italiano”.  Which means, “100% Product of Italy”.  And look for a “use by” date that will give you a clue as to when the oil was bottled.

     Sensitized to olive oil fraud and adulteration, two forward-thinking American states, California and Connecticut, passed legislation late last year that forces producers and importers to conform to standards similar to the ones dictated by the IOC.  

     Their motivation was not strictly economic: olive oil that is cut with nut or seed oils, especially when their presence is not listed on the label, can cause potentially fatal reactions in people with nut allergies.  (In one of the most famous and tragic cases of olive oil adulteration, more than 450 Spaniards were killed or disabled by ingesting aniline-laced rapeseed oil that was being sold as olive oil for cooking.)

     Similar laws are under consideration in other states.  Fingers crossed that the USDA will ultimately take the reins and protect the other 48 states in the Union.

     In the meantime, what can you personally do to avoid wasting money on counterfeit or subpar olive oils?

     Freshness, of course, is critically important.  Experts judge it to account for more than 80 per cent of an oil’s flavor.  Believe me, in the great olive-growing regions of the world, the locals are wild about it.  Fresh-pressed oils are insanely bright-tasting and flavorful.

     Case in point…

     A few weeks ago, I took a marvelous bottle of just-pressed Sicilian oil to my favorite hairdresser, Italian-born Gino.  (Gino wears red-framed eyeglasses and used to do David Bowie’s locks.  I figure if he can do “Ziggy Stardust’s” hair, he can probably coax the 53 strands I have on my head into a style.  But I digress.)  At any rate, Gino’s brother from Rome visited over the hoildays, and was astounded, Gino said, by the quality of the olive oil I gave Gino.  “Where did you get this wonderful oil?” implored his brother.  “It tastes like it should…like olives.”

     Now, I happen to have a secret source.  And I haven’t shared it with Gino, because then he’d probably plumb it himself and stop giving me free bottles of premium shampoo.  But I will share my source with you.

     If you’re truly interested in putting olive oils of unimpeachable quality on your table, you have a couple of options.

     You could, of course, press your own olives if you are lucky enough to live in an olive-friendly state like California, Texas, or Arizona.  This is not as far-fetched as it sounds!  A snazzy little unit for home use called First Press™ sells for around $3000 (plus shipping and handling).  It has a 4-1/2 gallon capacity, a press that can deliver 20 tons of pressure, and even comes with a dozen bottles and corks.  (Hmmm…that’s about $250 a bottle, not including the olives.)  First Press™ is available from a California company called The Olive Oil Source (1-805-688-1014).  Proprietor Shawn Addison told me this week he’s sold dozens and gets inquiries from all over the world.

     Or, here’s another—and way more practical—option that is guaranteed to revamp and invigorate your olive oil life: Follow up on the information I’m about to give you—my secret source for fresh-pressed olive oil.  You’ll never look back, never browse supermarket selections of olive oil again, never wonder if you’re going to be wasting money on oils the rest of the world would reject.

     And now, click here if you want to significantly improve your olive oil life!
     In a few days, I’ll be roaming via rental car Spain’s Iberian Plain in search of phenomenal olive oil from the recently completed harvest.  I’ll report my finds here next month. 

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