Oils aint oils

September 27, 2009

olive oilThe 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 …


  1. Though isn’t the problem with local olive oil that olive trees have become a pest/weed which is a particular problem given their propensity to burst into flames? My brother spent a summer working on a weed reduction programme in the Adelaide Hills and a lot of that time was spent pulling out baby olive trees. I hasten to add that I haven’t done any real research on it or anything, but it does get talked about on the radio quite a bit in summer (which doesn’t make it true, she further hastens to add).

  2. Wow, that’s very interesting ThirdCat. I had no idea. I thought olives were a great crop for our climate as not so water-dependent etc, but realise actually I know *-all about it! I am supposed to be joining a friend in starting a mini-olive grove in SA, so this is obviously a big concern. Anyone else know stuff about stuff when it comes to olives?

  3. Now I feel terrible that I left that half-informed comment! Actually, half-informed is a generous descriptor…

    Apart from anything else, I always used to buy local olive oil at the Central Market when I lived in Adelaide and I still would be if I were living there now. And probably, if I saw it on the shelves here I’d be buying it here.

    *slinks back into state of lurking*

    • You kidding? We love half-informed here in howtoshuckland! How do you reckon these posts get written?! And I do think the weedy olive issue is something I wish to know more about. All views – from the expert to the well-informed to the half-informed to the downright crackpot – are happy companions here as at any good dinner table, I say. So lurk happily in peace, TC, and your remarks are welcome here anytime.

  4. Charlotte: yep, olives are weedy there. It’s simply a matter of the plants thriving in the climate. Italian lavender is a problem weed there, too. In fact, quite a few Mediterranean plants are weeds there, because it’s a classic Mediterranean climate.

  5. Wow, that’s all very eye-opening, Lady Charlotte. I had no idea! I’m afraid I’ve been buying “Italian” olive oil since 1991. Eek! We’ve also had lots of other tasty varieties in the meantime – a friend got us into Koron – very tasty, Greek – and someone else recently gifted us a good looking bottle of Hempfill’s Organic Gourmet, handmade in the Yarra Valley. If it’s anything like their wines, I’ll be happy…

    Those exploding trees sound a bit alarming, I must say.

  6. HempHILL!

  7. I’ve just gone through the kitchen cupboards, and to my great surprise we have no “Italian” oils in the house at the present time – feeling quite pleased with self. Our current everyday olive oil is redisland, 100% Australian owned and made. So there you go. Might go dip some sourdough in it to celebrate.

  8. In New Zealand part of the problem is that the cost of producing quality olive oil isn’t recoverable at the supermarket. Since the supermarket shelves are flooded with inexpensive, low quality, foreign olive oil, most Kiwis aren’t willing to pay the price for high quality, fresh, local oil.

    But the taste difference is like night and day.

    Some local growers have joined together to sell their quality oil overseas, where it can get a better price.

  9. I like the idea of always having Aus food where possible but I don’t really like the taste of most australian olive oils – I find them quite bitter. I generally go for Greek because it’s ballsy, sometimes even a bit cloudy in its lack of refinement. Would love to know if it’s subject to similar adulteration as Italian. Anyone got any dirt on it?

  10. It’s a minefield, isn’t it? Actually the mini grove we are meant to start is on the Vic NSW border nr Albury, not in SA, so maybe olive growing has not got out of hand there … I like my oil to taste green, grassy and have a little bit of a peppery kick at the back of the throat. Olive varieties like Frantoio , or blends with Kalamata, but it is a case of trial and error. The 7.30 Report did a story follwing the NYorker piece which actually prompted my boycott policy and said our oil production was much more rigorously vetted than the production overseas and our oil was also likely to be fresher, whereas we may be getting stuff imported that is not just diluted and adulterated but goingn stale… Obviously if you buy from reputable places that have direct links with grower producers, then you are probably safe if you are happy to pay for such premium quality. Can’t remember the brand but I do love the bottles you can get at Fratelli Fresh that come rolled in gold foil to protect them from the light. My rule is any bottle of oil that is not dark green is not really adequate, as oil goes off from contact with light so I never, ever buy anything in clear glass. Anyone who sells olive oil in clear glass is not serious about quality. I know that sounds very hard line!

  11. And did you see the story in Saturday’s SMH about the adulteration of a big percentage of imported EVOOs? Naughty Coles! Not sure if this link will work, but here it is anyway…


  12. Oh, brilliant, thanks Jamie! Very interesting and dispiriting – but shows once again that Australian olive oils have the upper hand in the adulteration issue. But are they labelled for time? Interesting that one in four Aus oils failed the test for being too old. Off to check out the labelling on my Oz tins now.

    (Oh, and pleasing isn’t it, that once again the SMH follows howtoshuckanoyster’s lead – did you notice last week’s Good Living’s cover story was on oyster shucking?? They didn’t mention us, but they didn’t have to – of course we know the whole newspaper bases its food coverage on our discussions these days …)

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