Olive Oil Fraud is Rampant
If you are cooking halibut, seared in a pan with olive oil, there’s a relatively good chance that one of those two ingredients is not actually what you think it is. Some experts say that 5 to 7 percent of all food consumed in the U.S. is fraudulent—a.k.a. not what the label says it is. Most at risk for being a fraud? Seafood, juice, honey and olive oil. Want to put this in perspective? It is estimated that food fraud costs the global food industry $10-$15 billion a year. (Woah.)
While we covered fish fraud, one ingredient we haven’t looked at is extra virgin olive oil. Revered by chefs, foodies and health nuts alike for its pungent taste and numerous health benefits, it turns out that this age-old product—even touted by the Romans—is often impure.
What exactly do you mean by “impure”?
Last year, the National Consumers League tested 11 national brands of extra virgin olive oil and found that only five of those tested met the criteria of EVOO standards set by the International Olive Council (IOC). But this is nothing new. In 2010, the UC Davis Olive Center found that 69 percent of imported “extra virgin” olive oils in their test batch failed the IOC standard. In 2012, Consumer Reports revealed that only nine of their 23 tested “extra virgin” olive oils met the EVOO standards. It has become an accepted truth: olive oil fraud is rampant.
What makes olive oil “extra virgin” or not “extra virgin”?
Olive oils are classified based on flavor, chemistry and defects, and labeled according to quality: “extra virgin” is the best quality, then “virgin,” then “ordinary,” and then “lampante.” (Lampante is considered not fit for human consumption. Think: lamps, not bagna cauda.)
So what is my EVOO if it’s not actually EVOO….?
Good question. Probably a lower grade olive oil or a mix of other oils. In Extra Virginity: The Sublime and Scandalous World of Olive Oil, author Tom Mueller claims that many olive oils are adulterated along the supply chain, thinned out with vegetable oils and altered with food dye. One producer cited in the book claims that nearly half of all olive oil in the U.S. is not what the label says it is. The problems amplify when olive oil hits the distribution network, as writer and olive oil expert Nancy Harmon Jenkins notes. Some olive oils are simply not shipped or stored properly, so what starts as “extra virgin” when bottled, may actually be “virgin” or “ordinary” by the time it hits shelves.
Is the rest of the label right?
Well, it turns out that other common claims like “light” or “cold pressed” don’t really mean much. “Cold pressed,” explains Cathy Huyghe of Forbes, “refers to the time when oil was made using hydraulic presses and there was a distinction between the first (cold) press and the second (hot) press but that process is outdated.” Claims of origin may also be inaccurate. Just because the olives are from one place, doesn’t mean that’s the location on the label—instead, it’s where the oil is bottled.
What’s the effect of fraudulent EVOO?
“Consumers are paying top dollar for that EVOO label without getting the enhanced health and taste benefits,” said Sally Greenberg, NCL’s executive director.
“A number of studies have shown that extra virgin olive oils with higher polyphenol content are associated with greater health benefits,” said Mary Flynn, a leading olive oil researcher at Brown University. “Oil classified as ‘ordinary,’ also known simply as ‘olive oil’ grades have virtually none of these benefits.”
So why create fake stuff?
In short, extra virgin olive oil is expensive and time-consuming to produce. The cheap stuff, not so much. In the ‘90s, profits from fake EVOO in the European Union were “comparable to cocaine trafficking.” Criminal rings have been broken up, with hundreds of thousands of liters of fake olive oil, worth millions.
This practice, of course, is putting the authentic olive oil producers in a bind. They can’t compete with the fraudulent prices.
What’s being done to control fraudulent labeling?
Some states are enacting strict labeling and grading standards. California has rules and requirements for testing olive oil, but they only produce 2 percent of America’s olive oil. The E.U.’s anti-fraud office had a short-lived olive-oil task force. For now, the FDA is not taking action. Instead, some are taking olive oil companies to court, themselves.
Is this really the biggest issue in food?
As The New York Times’ Dwight Garner put it: “Grody olive oil is not killing anyone.” But don’t shirk this off as a first world problem; the overall issue of food fraud is a huge global health and economic issue. Olive oil is just one more case where we see the cracks in the system. As food travels further, and more hands touch a product before it arrives on the plate, consumers need to be aware of the potential for food fraud.
“Consumers need to know that when they see ‘extra virgin olive oil’ on the product, they are actually getting what they paid for,” says Greenberg.
What should I do?
Honestly, it’s tough to know if any EVOO is the real deal, but there are a few things you can do to be sure you’re dropping cash on something legit: First, check for “best by” or “harvest” dates. Second, avoid buying oil in clear bottles or bottles on the top shelf—those have a higher risk of degrading from sunlight.
And, if you can, buy olive oil from drums instead of bottles. Though the real deal is pricier (and likely to get even more expensive in years to come), the taste and health benefits are best in true EVOO.