Extra virgin olive oil has become fashionable in health circles because it’s the predominant fat used in the Mediterranean diet, a diet shown to reduce risk of death for all causes. Italian extra virgin olive oil is considered the best, and it is the most highly sought. The only thing bothersome here is the fact that when you buy a bottle of Italian extra virgin olive oil, you may not get what you think you are getting, because olive oil tops the list for agricultural fraud.
An intergovernmental organization known as the International Olive Council (IOC) based in Madrid, Spain is the standard bearer for olive oil, tracking production, defining quality standards, and monitoring authenticity. The U.S. does not belong to this organization, and the USDA does not recognize its classifications, one of which is extra virgin olive oil. As a result, it does not enforce any criteria for that label – although it did adopt new olive oil standards in 2011 that were supposed to harmonize with those of the IOC.
According to U.S. Customs, if a non-origin nation such as Italy, is shown on the olive oil label, the actual place of origin must be displayed on the same side of the label and in same-sized letter, to keep from fooling consumers. But most brands sold in the U.S. disregard this and state their products are imported from Italy boldly on the front of the label, with the true origin printed in tiny lettering on the back, if it’s shown at all.
With Italian extra virgin olive oil in such high demand and fetching such high prices, adulterated oil has been documented as the primary source of agricultural fraud in the EU, even though they have the IOC, suggesting that this is true for the U.S. as well.
Though less than 10% of olive oil production worldwide actually fits the criteria to be labeled as extra virgin, it has been estimated that up to 50% is labeled as such. Some of what is labeled as extra virgin is diluted with lower quality olive oil or other vegetable oils, which may be corn, canola, or soybean oils what have been genetically modified.
In some instances, oils that cannot legally be sold as food are added to olive oil. One fraud ring has been accused of coloring soy and canola oils with industrial chlorophyll, and passing the result off as olive oil.
In the U.S., the FDA does not test for imported olive adulteration. In 2007, Tom Mueller, writing for The New Yorker reported that major Italian distributors adulterate their olive oil routinely, and only about 40% of what is sold as extra virgin meets the criteria for that classification.
As a result of all this fraud, the Italian government mandated stringent new labeling laws in 2007, but the EU gutted them by making them voluntary. As of now, olive oil may be labeled as Italian even if it contains only a fraction of real Italian olive oil.
Olive Oil Fraud has Been Going on more than 20 Years with Little Done to Stop It
- In 1993, the ‘olive oil’ products of a U.S. producer known as Rubino were found by the FDA to be nothing more than canola oil.
- In 1999, a Canadian agency determined that of the 100 olive oils they tested, 20% were fraudulent.
- In 2007, ShopRite, a U.S. supermarket chain recalled olive oil after finding it was fake.
- In 2008, Italian police confiscated 85 farms after discovering a complex scheme to re-label other oils as Italian. That year also saw the impounding of seven olive oil production plants for adding chlorophyll to sunflower and soybean oil and passed it off as extra virgin olive oil in Italy and elsewhere.
- In 2010, the University of California at Davis published an extensive investigative report on the fraudulent labeling of extra virgin olive oil, after finding that several brands sold in the U.S. were adulterated with lower quality oils. Some of the brands specifically mentioned as being fraudulent were Pompeian, Star, Bertolli, Coavita, Newman’s Own, Safeway, Whole Foods, and Mazzola. However, producers of these brands may have cleaned up their acts since then.
- In 2013, Tom Mueller’s book titled The Sublime and Scandalous World of Olive Oil was published, continuing to chronicle how resellers have used lower-priced, lower grade oils and colorants to get over on consumers. One producer reported that at least 50% of the olive sold in the U.S. is adulterated.
According to Mueller, the adulterating of extra virgin olive oil destroys its antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. True extra virgin olive oil contains more than 200 health-nurturing compounds, and this is why it is credited for so many of the benefits to be had from the Mediterranean diet.
But the oils used for adulteration throw off free radicals and impurities. He highlights the fact that many bottles labeled as olive oil contain no olive oil at all. And only about 4 out of 10 bottles claiming to be from Italy actually are.
How to Avoid Getting Scammed
I’m sorry to say that there is no sure way to know you are getting extra virgin olive oil even though the label says it is. Look for bottles that say they are 100% extra virgin olive oil, and go organic to lessen the odds of being scammed. Always taste oil you have bought before using it. If it does not taste like olive oil, take it back for a refund and keep trying until you get one that tastes right.
The University of California at Davis report did mention that the Kirkland organic brand from Costco was the real thing.