Bogus ‘extra virgin’ olive oil a common form of food fraud

Posted by
January 10, 2012

In the fight against food fraud and misleading package claims, reading the ingredient label is your best defense. But in the case of bogus “extra virgin” olive oil, it isn’t quite that simple.

And in fact, olive oil flim flams are much more common than you might think.

A 2010 report by the University of California-Davis Olive Center found that 69 percent of imported olive oil samples touted as “extra virgin” were actually made from inferior grades. In addition, some of the samples showed signs of oxidization (from age or bad storage), poor quality or adulteration with cheaper, chemically refined oils, such as soy and canola.

A few surprises that came out of the UC-Davis study included all three samples of Cosco brand Kirkland Signature organic olive oil qualifying as true extra virgin, while two out of three samples of Newman’s Own Organic, Colavita and Filippo Berio “Extra Virgin” failed to meet the criteria.

The UC-Davis study is just the most recent expose in a long history of olive oil scams and scandals. Author and expert Tom Mueller describes some of them that go back to ancient times in his new book Extra Virginity: the sublime and scandalous world of olive oil. Since it involves a highly valuable commodity that can be quite easily tainted, olive oil adulteration has always been a lucrative crime. In a 2007 New Yorker article called “Slippery Business,” Mueller described how in 1997 and 1998, “olive oil was the most adulterated agricultural product in the European Union, prompting the E.U.’s anti-fraud office to establish an olive-oil task force.” As one investigator told him, “profits were comparable to cocaine trafficking, with none of the risks.”

With U.S. consumers alone spending $720 million a year on olive oil, according to the California Olive Oil Council, it’s not hard to see why this form of food fraud is becoming more commonplace. The trade pub Food Manufacture reports that organized crime is now making the jump from drug trafficking to culinary crime because the latter is more difficult to detect and penalties for getting caught aren’t nearly as severe.

Is “extra virgin” really all that special?

“Real” extra-virgin olive oil is respectfully referred to by Mueller as “a cocktail of 200 plus highly beneficial ingredients,” whereas “bad olives have free radicals and impurities, and then you’ve lost that wonderful cocktail…that you get from fresh fruit, from real extra-virgin olive oil.”

Yes, olives are fruits, just like cherries. And like fruit juice, olive oil is perishable and can taste different from season to season.

To help ensure that you’re getting a top-grade, “true” extra virgin olive oil, you should look for a bottle that’s as new as possible on the shelf, as evident from the “best buy” date – typically two years from bottling. Or even better, if it’s indicated, the actual date of harvest. Old, rancid olive oil has not only lost the antioxidants and magical health benefits extra virgin is known for, but can actually be bad for you. Make sure the oil you buy is packaged in dark, glass bottles and keep it away from heat and light.

A few more olive oil factoids to keep in mind:

  • Good olive oils can range in color from green to gold; color doesn’t determine quality.
  • Fresh, true extra-virgin olive oil should be “vibrant and lively,” and while it may taste bitter, it should never be rancid or greasy.
  • Don’t buy “extra light” olive oil, which has just as many calories but none of the health benefits of extra virgin, as well as also being highly refined.

High-quality, extra virgin olive oil doesn’t have to come from Italy. Excellent oils also come from Spain, Turkey and California. The California olive oil industry has its own council and “certified extra virgin” label on products that the council claims guarantees you are buying “real” extra virgin olive oil.

For further help in distinguishing genuine extra virgin olive oil from the mislabeled impostors, author Mueller offers a lengthy guide to buying olive oil at his blog Extra Virginity.