Inside The Slippery World of The Olive Oil Biz

creqqThe olive-oil industry may not be as “extra-virgin” as its oil is presumed to be. In fact, much of the oil isn’t even “virgin,” especially if it has been mixed with any less-expensive-to-produce oils such as that from sunflower seeds and some types of nuts. Over the past several decades, this has become quite a big issue in countries like Italy, where olive-oil distribution can be quite lucrative, especially if the costs of production have been dramatically cut by illegal practices.

According to Tom Mueller’s recent piece in The New Yorker, “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.)'”

Mueller’s reporting reveals that, “Adulteration is especially common in Italy, the world’s leading importer, consumer, and exporter of olive oil. (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.)”

So how do you know you’re getting what the label says is inside? One way is to do a chemical test, which is how the N.A.S. Carabinieri uncovered an illegal ring of dealers in 2005, in which they confiscated 100,000 liters of oil with a black-market value of roughly $8 million. “The 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 and bottles emblazoned with pictures of Italian flags or Mt. Vesuvius, and with folksy names of imaginary producers—the Farmhouse, the Ancient Millstones,” Mueller writes.

Short of a chemical lab, how can the average consumer tell the difference between extra-virgin olive oil and ‘lamp oil’ (as they call the lowest-quality grades)? “According to the E.U. regulations, extra-virgin oil must have appreciable levels of pepperiness, bitterness, and fruitiness, and must be free of sixteen official taste flaws, which include ‘musty,’ ‘fusty,’ ‘cucumber,’ and ‘grubby.’” So there you have it, olive oil in a nutshell (but hopefully not literally). — Laura Cimperman