Forget the IRS — There’s an Olive-Oil Scandal Afoot

Credibility problems? Check. Overreach? Check. Finger-pointing? You betcha

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We have an oil problem on our hands, and it has nothing to do with renewable energy and carbon emissions.

When experts convened recently at the 104th annual meeting of the American Oil Chemists’ Society, there was heated debate over what to do about olive oil. Even though concerns over poor quality, mislabeling and outright fraud surfaced a few years ago, olive oil continues to be plagued with credibility issues, even as it finds its way into more American homes and countries around the globe attempt to set quality-control standards. The state of extra-virgin olive oil — which is extracted from olives via mechanical means, not chemicals or heat — has been particularly controversial. While some industry insiders insist that stories of rampant adulteration are greatly exaggerated, others beg to differ.

(MORE: It’s the Olive Oil: Mediterranean Diet Lowers Risk of Heart Attack and Stroke, Study Finds)

Among the conference participants was Dan Flynn, executive director of the Olive Center at the University of California at Davis, who a few years earlier had assessed the quality of extra-virgin olive oils in supermarkets based on standards set (but not enforced) by the U.N.-chartered International Olive Council as well as two additional chemical criteria. Shockingly, he found that 69% of imported olive-oil samples and 10% of California samples failed to meet sensory standards such as having more than zero fruitiness and not being rancid. Thirty-one percent were also deemed oxidized or of poor chemical quality. This year, Flynn followed up with more bad news. Among 15 samples of extra-virgin olive oil from restaurant suppliers, one was adulterated with canola oil, and a whopping 60% failed to reach sensory and chemical standards defined by the term extra-virgin.

Last spring, in the hope of improving matters, the USDA invited olive-oil brands to comply voluntarily with its Quality Monitoring Program. But so far only one company — Pompeian, the second largest olive-oil bottler in the U.S. — has chosen to participate. To do so, Pompeian officials say, they have had to greatly increase the size of their quality-control department, spending “several hundred thousand dollars” for staffing, training, research and record keeping.

Some industry groups argue that monitoring simply isn’t feasible. The vast majority of olive-oil brands in supermarkets come from companies that don’t own a single olive tree. They obtain the oil from middlemen, who don’t necessarily get it directly from the grower (or, in most cases, growers). With so many hands in the vat, it’s tough to know when and where adulteration or spoilage occurs unless there’s an inspection at every step of the way. And let’s not forget about the shippers and retailers involved before that bottle ends up in your pantry — even the best oils will deteriorate if left in a hot truck or near a sunny window.

(MORE: The Forgotten Benefits of Chinese Food)

Then there is the problem that there are several certification programs besides the USDA’s and that test results can vary even when similar standards are used. Quality can change from year to year, from sample to sample. For example, even though Bertolli and 365 100% Italian both earned quality seals from the North American Olive Oil Association (NAOOA) and Pompeian earned USDA and NAOOA seals, 33% of the 45 samples tested from the three brands failed to meet chemical standards and 84% failed to meet sensory standards when assessed two years ago by UC Davis’ Olive Center. In another study performed a year later, the results for Pompeian and Bertolli were still not 100%, so competitors have questioned whether these products actually improved. But Eryn Balch of the NAOOA argues that taste can be subjective, changes over time and in this case has “nothing to do with adulteration.” She also claims that the reports out of UC Davis are funded by California olive-oil companies and that the panelists were partial to promoting domestic oils.

Flynn responds that the criticisms of the panelists are irrelevant, since they are professionally trained, and that fustiness and mustiness do not result from mishandling in shipping or storage but reflect the quality of the olives. Meanwhile, the California Olive Oil Council, which has its own seal program and requires local brands to participate, reports that the imported olive oils that it samples randomly from store shelves “come in at about 75% not extra-virgin grade.”

While we’re waiting (and waiting) for the various factions to stop pointing fingers and start working for the good of olive oil as a whole, remember this: as long as we keep thinking of olive oil as a shelf-stable condiment instead of the perishable product it is, someone might try to dupe us somewhere along the supply line — and we might not even know the difference. Fossil fuels may be more finite, but olive oil still has an expiration date.

13 comments
gftp
gftp

I would like to point out that just a province in Spain (Jaen)  produces more olive oil than Italy, second world producer. Just a single province. That means that we, spaniards, know a lot about olive oil. Why don't you take a look and see how we do things? Perhaps you might learn something about the quality of it. You don't have to start from scratch, though that would mean to accept help from a poor country.

And be careful because there are a lot of olive oil from Italy that it is just labeled there, but its origin is Spain.

Gonzalo Fdez de Terán

Alcalá de Henares, Spain

P.S.: Just one interesting link: http://www.esenciadeolivo.es/

Channah
Channah

You talk about extra virgin olive oil-----I don't care for it.  I don't like the taste.  Just plain olive oil suits me just fine.  My olive oil is a beautiful golden color, and I buy it in huge containers as it is much cheaper this way, as I use olive oil for everything--salads, frying, baking, etc.,.

MichaelBradley
MichaelBradley

@Channah What your are buying is REFINED olive oil. It is not "plain old olive oil" it is made from what used to be called "lampante" or lamp oil. The reason why it is refined is because lampante is not fit for human consumption unless it is cleaned up or refined. During the chemical process all of the flavor and antioxidants are destroyed. You will save yourself some money if you simply purchase refined safflower oil. The fact is that refined or pure olive oil has much more in common with refined seed oil than it does with authentic extra virgin olive oil and the seed oil is much cheaper besides.

sjean1r1
sjean1r1

We are fortunate enough to get our olive oil directly from friends who have their own olive orchards and process their own oil in Jordan and the West Bank.  When you compare this oil with any that you can buy on store shelves you will see the difference.  The oil we get is much darker, is thicker, and has a stronger smell. 

EVOOlovers
EVOOlovers

Thank you so much for covering this issue! It is very important for consumers to know exactly what they're buying. Many people will say in these comments to "just buy from California", but the standards really need to be restructured everywhere. Italy, Spain, Greece, Argentina, Chile, South Africa and Australia and other countries all have fantastic olive oil producers who get very little business because their neighbors are cheating the system.

Channah
Channah

@EVOOlovers 

My olive oil comes from Argentina, Italy, Greece, Morocco, Spain, and Turkey.

cuzquena
cuzquena

When buying olive oil, I look at the labels for "country of origin" and usually the label lists multiple countries such as Tunisia, Greece, Italy, etc.  I never buy  such mixed oils.  I have bought California olive oil that's good.

MichaelBradley
MichaelBradley like.author.displayName 1 Like

@cuzquena Unfortunately, WHERE the oil is produced is far less informative than WHEN (harvest date), WHAT (the variety) and HOW, (process including time from tree to mill and milling parameters). Great and terrible olive oil is made in every producing region in the world, including Italy and California. If the oil is not well made in the first place and the fruit is not in good condition, the self life is drastically reduced.  Knowing the chemical parameters is critical if you are going to select an olive oil that you do not know all of the details about the producer.  Even great olive oil declines over time and a mediocre fresh oil can be far superior to a great one that is over 2 years old. Not unlike wine, some olive varieties are naturally more durable than others.  Knowing which varieties are more durable is helpful but most producers do not put that information on the label.  If all else is equal FRESHER IS ALWAYS BETTER!  Many consumers have never tasted fresh well made extra virgin olive oil and have become so accustomed to consuming fusty or rancid olive oil that they mistake the defects for attributes.  If the bottle does not have the harvest date, and the variety, and some chemistry, knowing WHERE it was made will not help.  There is absolutely no good reason to consume olive oil that is over 14 months old.  There are two harvests in the world and they are six months apart. Expiration dates of 2 years are common but those oils even if gold medal caliber will be a shadow of what they were when first produced.

Channah
Channah

@cuzquena 

I still prefer mine from the Mideast and general area.

vrcplou
vrcplou

First. World. Problems.

cjh2nd
cjh2nd

@vrcplou  

whats. your. point?

vrcplou
vrcplou

I don't have one; much like those so worried about the state of olive oil... ;)

hessaw
hessaw

Increasingly people  who care are looking for local suppliers, buying small, dark bottled olive oils.  Large clear bottled olive oil is a warning sign that if not now, very soon the oil will not satisfy.  True of most spices too.  The internet based suppliers may be able to service consumers best in this area of quality and freshness.