Did you know that the Mob makes money hand over fist by selling you fake olive oil? Olive oil is a $1.5 billion industry in the United States alone. According to Tom Mueller, an intrepid journalist who wrote a scandalously revealing book on the subject, 70% of the extra virgin olive oil sold is adulterated — cut with cheaper oils. Apparently, the mob’s been at it so long, that even most so-called “experts” can’t tell a real olive oil from a fake olive oil based on taste alone.
If you were a producer of one of these fake oils, 2008 was a bad year for you. That’s the year that more than 400 Italian police officers conducted a lengthy investigation dubbed “Operation Golden Oil” which led to the arrest of 23 people and the confiscation of 85 farms. It was quickly followed up by another investigation in which more than 40 additional people were arrested for for adding chlorophyll to sunflower and soybean oil and selling it as extra virgin olive oil, both in Italy and abroad.
The prevalence of these and other similar raids actually prompted the Australian government’s standards agency to allow olive oil brands to voluntarily submit their oils for lab tests. These authentication tests allow oils to be certified pure “extra-virgin olive oil.” Thus far in 2012, every imported brand of extra-virgin olive oil has failed the test to gain certification!
Last year, researchers at UC Davis tested 124 different samples from eight major brands of extra-virgin olive oil. More than seventy percent of the imported oils failed.
After reading these news stories last year, I was utterly intrigued when Tom Mueller’s tell all book finally came out. It took me months to get around to reading it, but when I did I couldn’t put the page-turner down. And the evidence? The evidence is damning.
In Extra Virginity: The Sublime and Scandalous World of Olive Oil, Mr. Mueller exposes the inner workings of the olive oil industry, which has fallen prey to hi-tech, industry-wide fraud.
Authentic extra-virgin olive oil, he says, takes a lot of time, expense, and labor to make. On the flip side, it’s quick, cheap, and easy to doctor it.
The most common form of adulteration comes from mixing extra virgin olive oil with cheaper, lower-grade oils. Sometimes, it’s an oil from an altogether different source — like canola oil or colza oil. Other times, they blend extra virgin olive oil with a poorer quality olive oil. The blended oil is then chemically deodorized, colored, and possibly even flavored and sold as “extra-virgin” oil to a producer. In other words, if you find a major brand name olive oil is fake, it probably isn’t the brand’s fault. Rather, it’s their supplier’s.
Mueller’s book is deeply engaging, reading like a typical suspense novel or crime drama rather than a news story. His engrossing way with words sucks you in from page one and doesn’t let you go until you reach the back cover.
If you want the full, gripping, true story behind the olive oil racketeering, I highly recommend you buy and read Extra Virginity: The Sublime and Scandalous World of Olive Oil.
Some of the brands purchased were available at multiple retailers, while others were sold under the retailer’s private label. Bottles were selected from the back of lower shelves to ensure they were not damaged by exposure to natural or artificial lighting.
Several other authoritative sources have tested EVOO in the last several years and made similar findings. July 2010 the UC Davis Olive Center issued a report showing that 69 percent of imported olive oils labeled as “extra virgin” failed the IOC sensory standard – in other words, these oils were defective and failed to meet the international standard for extra virgin olive oil. In September 2012, Consumer Reports published results of its testing of EVOO-labeled samples and found only 9 of 23 met the EVOO standards. One piece of good news is that all the samples NCL tested were found to be 100 percent olive oil, and none were cut with refined oil or seed oil, which is a form of EVOO fraud. Several of the brands that failed to meet EVOO standards in NCL’s testing also failed when tested by these other entitles.
Olive oils are classified based on their chemistry, flavor profile, and presence of defects, and are labeled (from best quality to worst quality) extra virgin, virgin, ordinary, and lampante. An olive oil found to have any defects cannot be classified as “extra virgin.” At the other end of the spectrum, lampante is a classification that the U.S. Department of Agriculture, along with other standard-setting authorities, uses to indicate that the oil is not fit for human consumption.
“One of NCL’s priorities is to assess whether the food in our supermarkets are accurately labeled,” said Sally Greenberg, NCL’s executive director. “The results of our olive oil testing reveal that, while consumers are buying and paying extra for olive oil labeled EVOO, too much of the olive oil bought off the shelf isn’t the real deal. It’s mislabeled, or it’s been degraded over the course of the shipping and storage process. When that happens, consumers are paying top dollar for that EVOO label without getting the enhanced health and taste benefits.”
For consumers, buying extra virgin olive oil with confidence in the United States is a challenge, according to Greenberg. “With the present lack of off-the-shelf testing and enforcement of US standards, it is difficult for consumers to know the real from the not so extra virgin. Choosing brands that consistently pass testing is a good start.”
What is the purest olive oil to buy?
Extra Virgin Essential Olive Oil may be the greatest grade and purest quality essential olive oil available. Industry standards for that extra-virgin grade require 100% wholesomeness EVOO is unadulterated oil from olives using no chemicals or heat to extract oil in the fruit wholesomeness along with a free essential fatty acid content no more than .08%.
How can you tell if your oil’s fake?
Unfortunately, you can’t simply go by taste alone. Journalist Alex Renton shares this story:
(Bertolli’s scurrilous reputation among olive oil brands came from their intimate involvement with selling fraudulent olive oils.)
So, if you can’t go by taste alone, how can you tell?
First, extra-virgin olive oil ought to be comprised of mostly monounsaturated fat that grows more solid when cold. If you put a real extra-virgin olive oil in the refrigerator, it ought to become thick and cloudy as it cools completely (some oils made from high-wax olive varieties will even solidify). It should be noted, however, that this is not a fail-proof test. That’s because adulterated oils may also become thick and cloudy in the refrigerator. After all, some adulterated extra-virgin olive oils are cut with low-grade, refined olive oil. Those would still clump up. Other adulterated extra-virgin olive oils are cut with just enough of the cheaper oils that they’ll still be mostly olive oil, so they’ll have some clumping, too. If, however, the oil you put in the fridge fails to thicken at all (still appearing as clear and runny as it did at room temperature), then you know something certain: that it’s fake!
Second, extra-virgin olive oil ought to be flammable enough to keep an oil lamp burning. Again, this isn’t a fail-proof test, and for the same reasons. But, it is certain that if your so-called “extra virgin olive oil” doesn’t keep a wick burning, it isn’t extra-virgin at all, but instead contains refined oils.
Since no completely fail-proof test exists, here’s what I do to know I’m getting a good oil: I know my farmer. He’s not a mobster; he’s a friend. And his farm has been growing and producing high-quality, fully authentic olive oils for more than a hundred years.
Artisan and locally-produced olive oils (the variety you can find from domestic small family farms) have always passed every single test of authenticity. So, buy locally. Buy from a farmer you can get to know and trust, and you’ll be set.
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