The Lunging Latino’s remarks on his fave Italian olive oil in this post here reminded me of a conversation with my friend C recently, where she declared, having read a bit on the subject, that she would never again buy Italian olive oil.
Apart from wanting to support local olive oil producers and reduce the environmental effects of transporting stuff across the oceans, she told me that Italian olive oils are subject to so much adulteration and fraud that it’s difficult to tell if you are ever actually getting what the label says.
This startling conversation sent me to a disturbing New Yorker article from a couple of years ago setting out the slippery olive oil adulteration issue in Italy. The upshot, according to this article, is that owing to some dodgy labelling laws, lax governmental investigation, corruption and outright criminal fraud, some of the biggest olive oil producers in Italy (Bertolli, Nestle & Unilever, for instance) have sold adulterated oil from other countries as Italian extra virgin olive oil and collected millions of dollars in Italian subsidies designed to support domestic producers. Olive oil labelled ‘Made in Italy’ apparently may be Turkish, Tunisian, Greek or Spanish, and may just as easily be adulterated with hazelnut, soy, canola or sunflower seed oil and even artificially coloured green to look like olive oil.
A few unnerving quotes from this article by Tom Mueller, which is well worth reading:
- 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. (“Profits were comparable to cocaine trafficking, with none of the risks,” one investigator told me.)
- For the past ten years, Spain has produced more oil than Italy, but much of it is shipped to Italy for packaging and is sold, legally, as Italian oil.
- The [criminal] ring, which allegedly sold its products in northern Italy and in Germany, is accused of coloring low-grade soy oil and canola oil with industrial chlorophyll, flavoring it with beta-carotene, and packaging it as extra-virgin olive oil in tins.
- Zaramella, a garrulous sixty-six-year-old former businessman, has made oil from olives grown on his small farm in Umbria since 1985. He began to study olive oil systematically when he found that the local farmer who tended his trees had been cutting his oil with sun-flower-seed oil. “Fraud is so widespread that few growers can make an honest living,” he told me.
Do read this article, as there’s lots more in it than I can reproduce here.
So now I’m thinking I’ll take on C’s policy and buy local olive oil, which presumably is free from this level of adulteration and corruption (okay, so this move was also prompted yesterday by a rather stunning supermarket special of three litre tins of Cobram Estate EV oil for $20 – I bought two tins) – at least for general cooking, if not dressings or other special stuff.
But, apart from your own tastebuds, do any of you know how to tell a good extra-virgin olive oil from a dud? And how can we be sure that our own fledgling olive oil industry is free from adulterated or bogus oils sold as EVO? Would love to hear more from you all about this slippery issue …