I have a cousin in Italy who makes his own olive oil. When we visited a few years ago, he proudly took us to see his olive trees, beaming as he walked us through the grove, pointing out individual olives as if he were showing off his children. At dinner later that night, he proffered up bruschetta drizzled with "olio di Bruno" — oil made from Bruno's cherished olives.
He wanted to send us home with bottles of his best vintage (and boy, was my dad tempted), but clearer heads prevailed and now we have to "make do" with what we find at the store.
But all kidding aside, what if the olive oil we buy at the grocery store isn't true to the label? In fact, it might not be.
The rise of the 'Agromafia'
Olive oil has been in the news lately with reports of fraudulent concoctions, police busts and more.
"60 Minutes" recently reported that Italy's olive oil business has been corrupted by the Mafia. The Italians have dubbed these villains the "Agromafia," the masterminds behind an estimated $16 billion annual business. The olive oil business, the program reports, is more lucrative for the Mafia and other criminals than running drugs. A gallon of authentic extra virgin olive oil costs about $50 to make, while a fake gallon can be created for about $7.
Journalist Tom Mueller, author of "Extra Virginity: The Sublime and Scandalous World of Olive Oil," estimates that half the oil sold as extra-virgin in Italy and 75-80 percent of the oil sold in the U.S. doesn't meet the legal grades for extra-virgin oil.
Late last year, Italian police discovered that 7,000 tons of olive oil sold as "100 percent Italian" extra virgin olive oil were actually a blend of oils from countries such as Turkey, Syria, Morocco and Tunisia, reports the Olive Oil Times. The oil was sold in Italy, as well as the U.S. and Japan, for a profit estimated to be in the “tens of millions of euros,” according to the State Forestry Corps, the organization that uncovered the fraud.
“Who harms the strategic sector of olive oil must be condemned with the utmost strictness. It is important to protect consumers and the thousands of honest companies that contribute to the success of ‘Made in Italy’ in the world,” said the minister of agriculture and forestry, Maurizio Martina.
The story behind the scandal
A special branch of the Italian police is trained to detect bad olive oil, based on smell, reports the New York Times. (Photo: Nicholas Blechman/The New York Times)
The olive oil scandal isn't new. The New York Times revealed some of the shady practices within the olive oil industry with a nifty interactive feature based on several studies and reports. It discussed how sometimes olive oil is cut with soybean oil or other cheap oils. The feature even suggested that at some really nefarious refineries, vegetable oils are mixed with beta carotene (for flavor) and chlorophyll (for color) to create a concoction resembling olive oil.
Sometimes bottles are labeled "packed in Italy" or "imported from Italy" even though the olives never spent a moment in Italian soil. This is legal, reports the New York Times, although the source countries for the olives are supposed to be listed on the label.
The National Consumers League tested 11 olive oils and found that six of them labeled "extra virgin" failed to meet the extra virgin definition set by the International Olive Council. The group was quick to point out that only one bottle of each product was tested, so this was not meant to be a "study" or a "buyer's guide," but rather "off-the-shelf testing as to what a consumer might buy within a year."
None of the products tested contained any oil that didn’t come from olives.
“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,” NCL Executive Director Sally Greenberg said in a statement, according to Time magazine.
A 2010 study by researchers at the University of California, Davis, found that 69 percent of imported olive oil labeled “extra virgin” didn't meet the standard for that labeling. The study suggested that some of the oil had been oxidized, some had been mixed with cheaper olive oil, some were made from overripe or damaged olives or olives that had been processed or stored incorrectly, or some combination of these issues.
"Olive oil fraud has gone on for the better part of four millennia," says "60 Minutes" producer Guy Campanile. "The difference now is that the food supply chain is so vast, so global, and so lucrative that it's easy for the bad guys to either introduce adulterated olive oils or mix in lower quality olive oils with extra-virgin olive oil."
Campanile suggests looking closely at the label to see if the oil was actually produced in Italy. He says he's encouraged when it's from a city in Sicily or Puglia known for producing olive oil.
Or you can just call my cousin, Bruno.