January 3, 2016 the CBS television news magazine show, “60 Minutes,” announced to the viewing world that the United States is being flooded by Mafia-controlled inferior extra virgin olive oil. They labeled the scandal “Agromafia” and claimed as much as 80 percent of imported extra virgin oil on grocer shelves was intentionally adulterated by organized crime.
Two months later, Fox News echoed the 60 Minutes report. According to that news account 95 percent of U.S. imported olive oil, worth $1.1 billion, fell short of standards required for the “extra” or even “virgin” olive oil classifications.
The extra virgin olive oil trade is global big business averaging two and a half to three million metric tons for the past decade.
Media warnings over counterfeit Italian EVOO, marketing shorthand for “extra virgin olive oil,” are not new. The European Union moved to combat fraud in the industry as early as 1991. 2007 saw Federal agents in New York and New Jersey confiscate 10,000 cases of soybean oil labeled extra virgin olive oil. In 2013 the North American Olive Oil Association (NAOOA) filed suit against the makers of Capatriti olive oils for pawning off “pomace oil” as “100% Pure Olive Oil.” A year later the United Kingdom imposed testing to screen for imitation extra virgin olive oils.
Journalist Tom Mueller blew the media whistle on phony olive oil in 2007 with his New Yorker Magazine article: “Slippery Business: The Trade in Adulterated Olive Oil” followed four years later with his book “Extra Virginity: the Scandalous World of Olive Oil.” Mueller is credited as the source for the 80 percent figure used by 60 Minutes to describe worldwide market share of illegal extra virgin olive oil.
Six years earlier that figure was only 69 percent. It originated in a 2010 study by the University of California at Davis Olive Center of extra virgin olive oil sold in California. No matter the true figure, the fact remains that trafficking in fraudulent extra virgin olive oil is a billion dollar illegal enterprise.
Olive oil is simply oil extracted from olives. The scandal is anything but simple. Understanding its complexity rests in the legal classifications of olive oil.
The International Olive Council (IOC) sets the olive oil classification standards governing how the olives are grown, transported, harvested, milled into oil, packaged, bottled and stored. They also dictate whether additives may or may not be used and the oil’s free oleic acid content.
Organoleptic qualities – how oils taste and smell – are most often the criteria tossed about as the way to distinguish the different grades of olive oil. Extra virgin oil is described as having a golden green color and what experts call “a light peppery finish.” The problem is that both can be duplicated in inferior oils by simple and quite fraudulent means.
Acidity is a more reliable indicator. IOC dictates the amount of free oleic acid allowed in each classification. Extra virgin oils must contain less than one percent free oleic acid. Virgin oil’s acidity can range between 2 and 3 percent. The most important distinction is between “refined” and “unrefined” oils.
Premium oils – extra virgin and virgin oils – are “unrefined.” Excessive heat and chemicals are forbidden in the extraction process. Extra virgin oil exhibits true olive flavor and aroma and, ironically, is somewhat bitter. It also retains the full range of anti-oxidants and anti-inflammatories, vitamins and minerals of olives. Recently a University of Grenada study dispelled the longstanding belief that extra virgin oil can’t be used to cook or fry due to a low smoke point (the temperature where it begins to burn).
“Refined” oils use lesser quality olives and filter impurities. They lack the flavor and aroma of unrefined oils. Solvents and high heat are used to process pomace oil from stems, skins, seeds, and pulp from previously processed olives. Residual polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) such as benzopyrene (a highly carcinogenic compound) pose a potential danger and must be monitored for safety. Refined oils are blended with extra virgin oil to make them more palatable.
News coverage calling attention to fraud in the olive oil trade provides an important service to consumers and industry alike. Consumers, farmers, processors, retailers and governments can and do rally to implement counter measures. That’s exactly what’s happening.
Extra virgin olive oil fraud cost the Italian economy $1.587 billion in 2016. The Italian Farmers Confederation (CIA) together with the National Consortium of Olive Growers (CNO) and the State Mint and Polygraphic Institute (IPZS) joined to block trade in fraudulent olive oils by means of an anti-fraud label currently awaiting certification by the Ministry of Agricultural, Food and Forestry Policies and the Ministry of Economy and Finance.
In 2015, Rural Payments Agency (RPA), a United Kingdom government agency supporting the food and farming sectors, engaged the research firm Campden BRI to test all imported olive oils to insure that they are authentic and unadulterated. IOC approved Eurofins CAL to provide chemical analysis of olive oils in the U.S. Spain’s University of Córdoba together with the Council on Scientific Investigation developed a system of DNA analysis for evaluating legitimate versus fake olive oils.
Sometimes uneasy questions about under lying motivation can arise. The 2010 joint effort by the University of California at Davis Olive Center and the Australian Oils Research Laboratory is one such incident. That study is ground zero for speculation of the percent of fake extra virgin olive oil in the U.S. The first half of the study suggested 69 percent then a year later 73 percent of imported extra virgin oil sold in California failed to meet IOC standards. During the 60 Minutes televised piece on Agromafia and adulterated olive oil, correspondent Bill Whitaker asked author Tom Mueller his opinion of the percentage of doctored extra virgin oil on American soil and 73 percent figure became 80 percent. And that may well be true.
Questions concerning credibility arise upon further examination of the UCal-Davis study. Its conclusion does not definitely say the failed imported olive oil was diluted with inferior oil. The careful wording leaves open the possibility that the imported oils failed largely because of they sat on store shelves or in storerooms too long.
Only oils from California and Australia passed.
One of the objectives on the UC-Davis Olive Center website is to help meet the research and education needs of California olive growers. As noted earlier, the study’s co-investigators are Australian.
The 60 Minutes exposé condemned the use of oil from Spain, Tunisia, Turkey, Greece and other Mediterranean countries marketed as Italian. In fact, countries of origin are listed on Italian olive oil brand containers. It is a global economy after all. Ownership of brands can and do switch hands from one nation to another daily. So a well-known Italian olive oil brand may contain premium quality oil from Tunisia and Turkey and be owned by a holding company in Spain.
No one doubts that unscrupulous characters and organized crime are quick to exploit counterfeit consumer products to make a quick and crooked dollar. Police raids in the United States, Italy, UK etc. produce plenty of evidence underscoring the illegal trade in adulterated olive oil as fact. Eliminating the economic incentive from illegal behavior is a challenge the world has not yet mastered.
On the other hand, there is no excuse for statements on food products such as extra virgin olive oil that are skewed for political, competitor advantage, or any other misleading reason. That they are memorialized as fact by the media is simply wrong. Sound policy and decisions by regulatory agencies and the public alike must be based on foundations of truth.