Health and taste claims about extra virgin olive oil led to an increase in demand and that attracted organized crime.
As consumers we may fall victim to olive oil fraud. So what consumers and olive oil brands can do about it?
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The olive oil problem
Extra virgin olive oil (EVOO) is praised for its health benefits and taste. It is the top grade of olive oil, and in its pure form, it is natural and raw.
Year after year, we hear about fraudulent olive oil. Counterfeiting, mislabeling, the Italian mafia, adulteration, deceptive distribution methods – we know it, and yet the issue is unresolved.
Olive oil fraud
We want EVOO.
We go to our local supermarket and pay extra to get the extra virgin version.
In reality, it is all too likely that the bottle we purchased does not contain what we believe we are buying.
Yes, we often fall victim to different forms of olive oil fraud.
What are some examples of olive oil fraud?
- Adulteration – It is not actually olive oil. Good olive oil mixed with inferior vegetable oils such as sunflower oil, canola oil, or palm oil.
- Mislabeling –The bottle says extra virgin olive oil when it is not.
- Does not meet sensory tests – the olive oil does not taste or smell as it should, or it may have a moldy, musty or fusty flavor.
Olive oil can be of lower quality. Quality is defined by color, taste, smell, chemical composition, nutrition properties, and more.
What are some reasons for lower quality olive oil?
- The olives are of lower quality.
- The olives are collected from the earth and with dirt.
- Processing is critical and results in lower quality if not done right and in the ideal timeframe from harvesting to extraction.
- Storage also affects oil quality: heat or light can cause oxidation.
- As olive oil is perishable, the oil may simply be too old.
In many cases, it is not an issue of quality. We think we bought a bottle of EVOO when, in fact, it is another oil made to look like olive oil with some coloring and aroma. Sunflower oil has no smell, and when you add color, it is easy to make it look like olive oil.
The issue of origin
Olive oil from Italy is perceived as having high quality. The label may read “100% Italian extra virgin olive oil” when it is really a blend of lower quality oil and not virgin nor extra virgin; and not from Italy, but North Africa, Turkey, or elsewhere.
Tunisia is one of the largest exporters of olive oil worldwide, but consumers are not usually aware that this is the case.
According to Tunisia’s former commerce minister Omar Behi, his country exports a large portion of its olive oil in bulk, primarily to Italy and Spain. There, the olive oil is mixed with local oils and sold under Italian or Spanish brands.
The situation is further exacerbated by events happening in Puglia, Italy’s largest oil-producing region. Puglia has seen challenges in recent years that developed into a crisis in 2021.
Water shortages, labor scarcity due to Covid-19, and the spread of the Xylella fastidiosa bacteria across the region all contribute to the current difficulties.
When we do not know where the olive came from, we cannot know its quality, age, or whether or not it is contaminated with pesticides and chemicals.
Counterfeit olive oil
When we buy a quality name brand, we believe we are protected. In reality, adulterated olive oils are sold as genuine brand names, yet they are fake.
Fakes affect us all. A healthy ingredient may turn out to be something completely different that we unknowingly consume.
The counterfeit problem runs deep.
The scope of olive oil fraud
In a 2016 interview on 60 Minutes, Tom Mueller, writer of Extra Virginity, said that “easily half of the bottles” that are sold as extra-virgin olive oil in supermarkets across Italy “do not meet the legal grades for extra virgin olive oil.” And in the U.S.? He believes the numbers are as high as 75% to 80%.
The reported percentage of lower quality oil sold as extra-virgin olive oil is even higher than the often-quoted 69 percent mentioned by the 2010 research by UCDavis Olive Center.
Among the sensory defects, the research lists rancid, fusty, and musty olive oil. If we can attribute any of these to olive oil, it means that something is not right: the olive oil may be adulterated, of poor quality, or oxidized.
Liquid gold and organized crime
Italian authorities continuously attempt to stop the olive oil fraud and protect the reputation of the country’s EVOO. They deploy custom and police officers and even have police tasters trained to taste-check olive oil.
In 2019, a Europol-coordinated operation named “Oro Giallo” (Yellow Gold in English) resulted in a large seizure of low-quality oil labeled as extra virgin.
The oil had been adulterated with chlorophyll, beta-carotene and soy oil, all substances that maintain or enhance its appearance, making it look like the real deal. The reports say that the mixing occurred in unsanitary and unregulated conditions.
The criminal organization intended to export the counterfeit oil to Germany.
Despite the efforts, counterfeit olive oil is still all too common. Reports point to agro-food and organized crime, known as Agromafia. And if you think we are reporting about a local issue, the fact is that much of the mafia-controlled olive oil is exported.
The numbers are staggering. According to the Financial Times, the Agromafia business reached 22 billion euros in 2018. The Placido Rizzotto Observatory report states that seizures of counterfeited food products in Italy valued at one billion euros between 2012 and 2016.
The mafia is reported to be heavily invested in olive oil as a way to make money and launder it. The Italian farming organization Coldiretti reported that the Agromafia has accelerated its growth and reached €21.8bn in value in 2016 across all food categories. The mafia is also involved in fake wine, fake cheese, and other fake food.
Agromafia is a lucrative business, and organized crime keeps looking for ways to extend its reach and hold over it.
Food fraud is a well-known problem that has been happening for many years. To tackle it, the European Commission enforces certification labels for high-value agricultural products such as olive oil.
The certifications for geographical indications include protected designation of origin (PDO) and protected geographical indication (PGI). Kalamata olive oil PDO, for example, is produced in the region of Kalamata in Greece, using olive varieties from that area.
Another example is Olio Lucano registered for PGI.
Products from certified places of origin go through stricter quality controls. Consumers associate the certification with the authenticity of high-quality olive oil.
Unfortunately, even olive oil bearing the certification was found to not always be the real deal.
We want our healthy, beneficial, aromatic olive oil. We have heard stories about counterfeit olive oil. Like with almost every counterfeit, price is an indicator of quality and authenticity.
The question is: do we buy the bottle of extra virgin olive oil that we find at a price that is just too good? If most olive oil on the shelves and in restaurants is not truly EVOO, maybe we have gotten too used to bad quality and low prices.
Price is an important indicator, but it is certainly not the only one. As consumers, do your research – do some reading and find trustworthy sources for your EVOO. Also, look at the year of harvest – you want the latest possible.
Remember: words like ‘pure’ or ‘refined’ do not mean that the olive oil is of better quality.
And one more tip: since light causes oxidation, bottles made of dark or otherwise UV-protected glass are better for olive oil.
Wiser Market brand protection
What we eat matters. Olive oil is a common ingredient and not knowing what we consume is troubling.
To protect their reputation and revenue, olive oil companies can address the fraud challenge and help their customers feel they trust what is in the bottle with the EVOO label.
Wiser Market online brand protection agency helps brands, artisan producers and other legitimate manufacturers combat the sale of counterfeit products.
We use our advanced monitoring system and proprietary algorithm to detect fakes and other IP infringements. Detection is followed by analysis to construct the best means for counterfeit removal and elimination.
Our team of brand protection analysts has years of experience protecting online intellectual property from brand abuse. We provide exceptional customer service and are proud to deliver unrivaled results at attractive costs.
As a leading online brand protection agency, Wiser Market offers a 360° solution. We believe it is the best way to protect your business, revenue, and reputation.
Want to protect Your Brand?
Contact us to learn more:
What is food fraud?
Food fraud includes situations in which food or drink is sold in a way that intentionally misleads or deceives individuals and/or businesses. It takes many forms and includes the food, its ingredients, or packaging.
What is EVOO?
Extra Virgin Olive Oil is the top grade of olive oil and the purest.
The industry has established a strict set of standards for a company to claim its olive oil is extra virgin.
The International Olive Council (IOC) provides designations and definitions of olive oils to its members: https://www.internationaloliveoil.org/olive-world/olive-oil/
Is olive oil fraud dangerous?
Food fraud is unsafe. When seed oil is purposely labeled “100% olive oil”, the outcome can be dangerous for consumers with allergies and health issues.