Unless you survive solely on a diet of dinners out and Seamless deliveries, it’s likely your kitchen cabinet is stocked with at least one bottle of olive oil — and there’s a good chance it’s "extra-virgin." The first pressing of the olive harvest is generally regarded as the most desirable thanks to its low acidity, delicate but intense flavor, and long-touted health benefits (antioxidants, anti-inflammatories, vitamins, minerals, et al).
But what if the contents of that relatively pricey bottle of oil doesn’t match what the label promises? A recent 60 Minutes broadcast shed some primetime light on an issue that’s currently plaguing the olive oil industry: rampant fraud, largely accredited to organized crime groups in Italy.
While the so-called "Agromafia" just recently got its 15 minutes of primetime fame here in America, olive oil fraud is nothing new: A study by the University of California, Davis tested 19 popular olive oil brands — including big names like Bertolli and Colavita — sold in the U.S., using chemical and taste tests to find that nearly 70 percent of the bottles labeled "extra-virgin" didn’t meet the parameters to be labelled as such. (Even Rachael Ray, the Food Network star credited with bringing the acronym "EVOO" into the popular vernacular, was found to be hawking mislabelled extra-virgin oil.)
The results of that study spurred a class-action lawsuit against several of the companies who were mislabeling their olive oil, and later that year the USDA finally introduced strict guidelines for the labeling of different olive oil grades; until then, it had basically been a free-for-all, with any company free to label its product as "extra-virgin" without consequence. But according to 60 Minutes, most of the EVOO that can be purchased in the average American supermarket today — as much as 80 percent, the report suggested — doesn’t fit the legal criteria; much of it is said to be diluted with cheaper olive oils from elsewhere in the Mediterranean, and sometimes it's even a cheaper product like sunflower oil that's been colored and scented.
But truth-in-advertising concerns and class-action lawsuits aside, why should olive oil fraud really matter to the average consumer?
David Neuman, CEO of Greek olive oil company Gaea North America and a certified master panel extra-virgin olive oil taster, compares buying fake EVOO to another sort of regulatory fraud many New Yorkers are familiar with: "It’s no different than hailing a yellow car and getting a gypsy cab," he says, referring to the illegal taxis that operate without proper permitting or licensure.
Neuman also argues that it can be a health concern for consumers. Besides being shorted on the much-touted health benefits of extra-virgin oils, mislabeled oils can potentially be dangerous for people with food allergies. "If you have ‘olive oil’ with peanut oil in it, and you have a peanut allergy, what happens to you?" journalist and author of the 2012 book Extra Virginity: The Sublime and Scandalous World of Olive Oil Tom Mueller asked New York magazine in 2013.
Eryn Balch, executive vice president of the North American Olive Oil Association (a trade group for olive oil producers worldwide), says she believes the claims about olive oil fraud made in the 60 Minutes piece grossly over-exaggerated the amount of fraud that’s actually taking place in the U.S. market. The NAOOA sends about 200 olive oil samples a year to Italy for authenticity testing — that is, to ensure it’s actually oil from olives and not a cheaper substitute — and based on that Balch claims "over 98 percent of the olive oil in the US market is absolutely olive oil."
"A lot of the claims we’ve heard recently in the media are talking more about quality and taste profiles of extra virgin olive oil; that’s a different matter," Balch says. But the NAOOA is no less enthusiastic about defending the extra virgin olive oil name: In 2013, the group filed a lawsuit against Italian producer Capatriti after an analysis revealed that the company was bottling and selling pomace oil — a lower-quality product that’s made from the chemical extraction of leftover olive skins — as 100 percent pure olive oil.
Nonetheless, she agrees with Neuman that when it comes to preventing fraud, education is key. Neuman believes that the best line of defense are the buyers responsible for choosing which olive oils get stocked in supermarkets and gourmet stores, saying that if they had "just a modicum of training" they could quite easily identify which products were likely to be fraudulent. "The buyer needs to be the cop who says, ‘We don’t want that in our stores. We’ll make room for better products that we can verify,’" he says. "If they don’t stock it, shoppers will have much less opportunity to support it."
Neuman also says consumers shouldn’t expect the U.S. government to be much help: "Neither the FDA nor the USDA are worried about stopping this, it’s too big of an issue. They’re worried about food safety, tainted meat, Chipotle [making people sick]; they’re not worried about the wrong label on olive oil, it’s not high enough on the radar."
Neuman has a simple tip for the average supermarket consumer who wants to ensure they’re getting a high-quality, authentic product: "Look at the price — don’t buy stuff that’s super cheap. Higher price typically means it’s a higher quality; the buyers won’t let companies just arbitrarily charge a higher price for their product. $8 to $14 for a 16-ounce bottle is about where you want to be."
Mueller’s list of his top supermarket picks posted on his website, Truth in Olive Oil, is a good starting point for consumers concerned about buying fraudulent or subpar quality oil. Another viable option: buying olive oil that’s produced here in America, or from another country that’s not subject to Agromafia antics. A recent Bloomberg
piece speculated that the U.S. olive oil trade could be on the brink of the sort of boom that struck the California wine industry back in the 1970s, thanks to companies like California Olive Ranch.
And remember, Balch says: Even good extra virgin olive oil can go bad quickly if not stored properly. "People have a tendency to buy big giant jugs, which after 2 years just isn’t going to be any good," she says. She suggests "buying only what you’re going to use within a few months, storing it away from heat and light," and frequently smelling and tasting it so you’ll know when it’s gone rancid.