Is Your Olive Oil Lying About Its Virginity?

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Photo: Kate Kunz/Corbis

An “extra-virgin” label is meant to denote the highest quality of olive oil. As such, it has to meet very specific requirements: It must come from fresh, perfectly ripened olives that were milled within 24 hours of when they were harvested; the oil can’t be chemically treated, but produced solely by mechanical methods, like a press or centrifugation; it mustn’t have any more than 0.8 percent free acidity, and needs to pass more than 20 other chemical tests; it should have peppery, fruity, and bitter flavors; and there can’t be any defects — including musty, vinegary, or rancid notes. Given those high standards, which are set by the International Olive Council, which includes the E.U. (and whose standards the USDA adheres to as well), it’s no surprise that only a fraction of the world’s olive oil is, in fact, extra-virgin.

But you wouldn’t know it if you wandered around an American or European grocery store today. Not only is almost every bottle labeled “extra-virgin,” but, for being the crème de la crème of oil and having to meet so many requirements, it’s surprisingly cheap. Not to mention, somehow, all Italian.

Those rock-bottom prices — and the ubiquity of Italian labels — are due to one thing: fraud, says Tom Mueller, the journalist behind the 2012 investigative book Extra Virginity: The Sublime and Scandalous World of Olive Oil. Italy is the world’s leading importer and exporter of olive oil. But its name cachet also means that even oils that have little or nothing to do with Italy are marketed as “Italian”; in total, the black market turns over about 60 billion euros a year in profits on “Italian” foods that are either faked or adulterated.

With investigations ongoing on his website, which also seeks to raise awareness and educate consumers on all things olive oil, Mueller is doing for the olive oil industry what Upton Sinclair did for meatpacking. We had the chance to chat with him from his home in Umbria on the wild, not-always-so-wonderful world of that elixir of everyday ancients and modern-day foodies alike: olive oil.

How did you first become aware that there was enough fraud and corruption in the olive oil industry not only for an article, but for a whole book?
I had been living in Italy, and when I started talking to my editor at The New Yorker at the time, olive oil came up. It seemed appealing, very Italian, easy. I thought I’d do one story and move on. [Mueller’s piece, Slippery Business, was published in The New Yorker in 2007.] Boy, how wrong I was about that.

About two weeks in, I was sitting in a dark, grim bar in north Rome with this undercover military-police guy. He was telling me all about these high-level payoffs and interconnections with Berlusconi’s government. I was thinking, What on earth have I gotten into here? We are talking about olive oil, not enriched plutonium on the black market, right? Not heroin. And the answer was, “Yes. We’re talking olive oil.”

A European Union investigator even told you that profits from adulterated olive oil are on par with those from cocaine trafficking.
That’s right. That was in the mid-to-late '90s, when there were huge government subsidies on olive oil. You were banking not just the profit derived from buying crappy seed oil and selling it as premier extra-virgin olive oil, but also all of your government subsidies on production, bottling, export. So it was huge. Huge.

The other part of that statement was that the profits were comparable to cocaine trafficking … with none of the risks. Because, first of all, people weren’t going to catch you. Secondly, if they do catch you, the worst thing you get is a slap on the wrist. You don't go to the big house for 20 years, like you would if you get caught trafficking cocaine.

How has olive oil fraud changed in the past few years?
It used to be substitution with soybean and sunflower seed oil. But one of the big problems now is what they call deodorized oil: oil that has been made out of inedible olives, olives that have been swept up off the ground with what look like street sweepers. You go to agricultural fairs in southern Spain and see a huge range of these different olive pickers — except that they’re picking up olives that have been sitting on the ground for a long time.

Then they do a very light, delicate refining process that doesn’t leave very many chemical footprints, so it’s very difficult for enforcers to pick it up with standard quality tests. They sell that mixed with real extra-virgin olive oil to give it flavor as extra-virgin. That’s because there are chemical requirements for oil to be extra-virgin, but there are also taste requirements; it has to have some fruitiness, and it can’t have any defects. This deodorized stuff, at least in the first few weeks, is defect-free. But it rapidly falls off a cliff and becomes horrible and rancid. For the time, though, it’s completely neutral. 

And it’s not just an issue of taste. Authentic extra-virgin olive oil is healthier for you than other kinds of olive oil.
Absolutely. The really key elements of olive oil’s health benefits are in about 2 percent of the oil that’s not the fatty acid, not the lipids; it’s something in the order of 200 different microingredients and their interplay, which is a very complex thing that food scientists are still trying to work out.

Some of their key benefits are antioxidants and anti-inflammatories — which are recognized now as having therapeutic benefits in conditions as diverse as coronary heart disease, various types of cancer, even diabetes and Alzheimer’s. You just lose those completely if you have a deodorized, refined oil. They are removed by the chemical process that the oil undergoes.

It’s also interesting that we’re so concerned about allergens these days — and they could so easily sneak into a fraudulent bottle of oil.
If you have “olive oil” with peanut oil in it, and you have a peanut allergy, what happens to you? This stuff is being sold in hospitals. It’s being sold in schools and prisons and every public facility. How many people in hospitals already have a problem, and have problems compounded by eating stuff that isn’t what it says on the label?

Right — getting the wrong thing can be downright dangerous sometimes. Like the toxic oil syndrome incident in Spain back in 1981 that you write about in the book. Eight hundred people died from fraudulent oil.
That’s probably the worst food intoxication in modern history. The methanol scandal — something on the order of 25 people died, and 20 went blind — was an awful thing. [Mueller is referring to the 1986 scandal in Italy that killed 26 people and blinded 20; it was discovered that local producers had been cutting their wines with methanol, a toxic substance. After the scandal, the Italian government cracked down on the wine industry, and the shake-up wound up restructuring how wines were regulated, giving them a quality control that many credit for making Italian wines a major international export in the 1990s.] But this toxic oil syndrome was just an order of magnitude greater. Some moron thought he’d be clever in buying industrial-grade canola oil rather than food-grade canola oil. The problem is that industrial-grade canola oil has an additive called anolin in it, which is an extremely poisonous neurotoxin. It just wiped out people’s central nervous systems.

But methanol in Italy completely caused the rebuilding of the Italian wine industry. Toxic oil didn't do anything.

You write in the book that the FDA tests only 0.3 percent of the U.S. food supply.
Just 0.3 percent of all food coming into America gets bar-code scanned. Bar-code scanned. We’re not talking about strip-searching here. We’re talking about bar-code scanned.

Has anything changed since your book’s publication in terms of consumer protections in the U.S.?
Nothing official has changed. But I was asked to testify at a big hearing in Washington, D.C., at a Senate committee on trade; they sent U.S. investigators around the Mediterranean. They did their homework. And then they published this huge report. Although it didn't mandate change, now any time a regulator or someone in Washington wants to look at this problem, they’re going to have a hard time ignoring this report: It is really straightforward in saying that there are huge problems in the U.S. industry, having to do with consumers not being protected by the current laws and the current enforcement of those laws.

Then there are all of the legal ways you can confuse consumers about what they’re getting. Like labeling. Olive oil can be, and often is, labeled as Italian if it’s blended in Italy — even from non-Italian oil. And only a small percentage of the olives used for nearly all major supermarket brands are grown in Italy; the majority, as you write, come from Spain and the Maghreb.
I’ve talked a lot about fraud, but to me, that’s legal fraud. There are various euphemisms for using Italy as a trans-shipment point. And they’re outrageous. That is misleading consumers, as are all of the pseudo-Italian names on their cheap Spanish and Tunisian oil. You’re just fooling consumers.

All of this fraud is driving olive oil prices down, too. But you note in the book that producing actual extra-virgin olive oil is a very pricy endeavor — so pricy that $4 for a liter just isn’t possible. What makes it so expensive?
In order to make extra-virgin olive oil, you have to care for your trees all year round. You have to pick the olives at the right moment, which is a lot harder than letting them fall on the ground and picking [them] up with street sweepers — a lot harder, and a lot more expensive. You have to have skilled pruners to prune the trees. You have to have a high-quality, high-tech mill, which costs a lot of money. All of these things are basic to extra-virgin olive oil, and they just cost money.

You do also see some very high-quality, large-scale producers in Italy, Spain, California, Chile, Australia. It’s a real industrial process, but they are picking their olives at just the right moment; they have extremely skilled chemists and sensory scientist. So it’s possible to do both, and you can get really, really good olive oil in a production area for, let’s say, $10 a liter. That doesn’t necessarily include import costs, transport costs, and all that. And then if you want to have that particular production on that particular hillside in Tuscany, it’s going to cost you a lot more.

When you buy oil, what do you look for — other than that it not be cheaper than, generally, $10 or $12 a liter?
The harvest date is important data. Obviously, who made it and where is important, but also when they made it; even great oil will go off, guaranteed. So if it’s got dust on it — which I’ve seen in high-quality stores in New York, at Dean & Deluca, Williams-Sonoma, and various other places — then it’s been sitting there for a long time. “Best by” or “bottling” dates only tell you when the stuff goes in the bottle, but it may have been made two or three years before and sat in a tank.

You have to think of olive oil as a fruit juice, because olives are fruit. Fruit juice needs to be fresh. Olive oil, as a fruit juice, needs to be fresh.

What else can consumers do?
Educate themselves. I have a website, Truth in Olive Oil, but there are lots of others. Find out the basics of olive oil. And then, when you have a bad one, complain. You have a bad one at a good restaurant, you call the waiter and say there’s something wrong with this olive oil. If you have one that’s rancid in the supermarket, you send it back. 

Extra-virgin olive oil. Is it a “first-world problem”?
The whole thing about it being a “first world problem” sounds to me like a smokescreen. Fundamentally, it is an all-world problem: All of us have to eat, and the quality of what we have to eat, in many cases, determines how good of a life we’ll have.