It has long been known that consumers have been misled over the quality of olive oil. With so many choices, deceptive labels, industry controlled certification and changes in ownership; it is next to impossible for even the most informed consumer to be sure that he or she is getting an olive oil that reflects the guidelines established by the International Olive Council.
This may change soon, if Rafaelle Guariniello, the prosecutor of Turin, Italy has anything to say about. He recently announced an investigation into various olive oil producer companies for possible commercial fraud.
Seven major olive oil brands sold in Italian supermarkets are involved in the investigation: Carapelli, Santa Sabina, Bertolli, Coricelli, Sasso, Primadonna (a private label for the retail chain Lidl) and Antica Badia (a private label for the retail chain Eurospin), some of which, despite their Italian names, were recently acquired by foreign groups.
Sources close to the olive oil industry in Italy advise me that several foreign firms (mainly of Spanish pedigree) have been acquiring Italian producers in an effort to use their Italian origins as a ploy to market inferior blended products as “extra virgin olive oil” from Italy. The systemic corruption within the olive oil industry is not limited to Spain and Italy as other observers have pointed out.
“The record of imports from abroad, in 2014, with the arrival of 666,000 tons of olive oil and pomace, 38 percent more than last year, certainly encouraged fraud,” Coldiretti said in its last press release. “We need to defend this ‘Made in Italy’ strategic sector, as Italy is the second largest producer of olive oil after Spain with about 250 million plants and an estimated annual revenues of 2 billion Euros.”
“Italy is also the world’s largest importer of olive oils,” Coldiretti declared, “that are often mixed with domestic ones to acquire, with the images on the label and under the cover of historical brands — even if transferred abroad — a semblance of Italian character to be exploited on domestic and foreign markets, a behavior that promotes fraud that must be fought with the strict application of law.”
According to information submitted to the Italian prosecutor on the investigation into olive oil fraud:
Chemical and physical analyses on the parameters of acidity, peroxides and alkyl esters confirmed the judgment of the panel. The prosecutor instructed the NAS, officials from the anti-adulteration and health unit of the Carabinieri, to repeat the analyses, which confirmed that the olive oil contained in the bottles of some popular brands, contrary to the indication on the label, was not extra virgin, but simply virgin.
The investigation reportedly is not about the potential health risks of the olive oil sold. None of the substances in the products seemed to be harmful to health. Instead, the allegation is the potential deception of consumers, who paid about 30-40 percent more for a bottle of extra virgin olive oil when it turned out to not be the case.
While I am not optimistic that false food labeling will change any time soon, I do believe that this is a step in the right direction to protect small Italian producers – and those of other countries – who produce genuine extra virgin olive oil.
May wife and I taste dozens of extra virgin olive oils (‘EVOO”) each year to determine which ones are best for Gourmet Living, particularly for those on a Mediterranean diet. While we only test oils from reputable producers of the highest level of integrity, there are many flavor variations depending on the olives used, age of the olive oil and where it was grown. Nevertheless, we have found that most authentic extra virgin olive oil should taste like fresh olives and leave a slightly peppery aftertaste. If it doesn’t I would be suspect.
As in all things, Buyer Beware! Learn who produces your extra virgin olive oil and whether they can be trusted. I would never taste a grocery-store labeled product as “extra virgin.” There is no such thing as “cheap” extra virgin olive oil, so don’t continue to be deceived by false labels suggesting otherwise.