Counterfeit bottles of olive oil; an industry subtly controlled by the Sicilian mafia; an olive oil producer whose car was set on fire because he dared to speak out against fraud within his industry… The plot has all the makings of a Hollywood thriller, and that’s probably why the recent 60 Minutes episode “Agromafia” was one of the most popular investigative pieces on the show this season.
But olive oil corruption is not an action movie; it’s an everyday, complex reality for olive oil producers, distributors, and enthusiasts. Many olive oil industry experts will tell you that the mislabeling of extra-virgin versus regular virgin olive oil is much more common than outright egregious counterfeiting of olive oil, in which chlorophyll and olive scent is added to some lesser oil, poured into a fancy jar printed with Italian words, and sold at market rates.
“I don’t like the word 'fake,'” says Alexandra Kicenik Devarenne, an independent olive oil consultant and founder of the non-profit trade association the Extra Virgin Alliance. “It makes for a good sensationalist headline, doesn’t it? The word 'adulterated' is thrown around too much, too. What really is happening is that 70 percent of the olive oil you see on the market is mislabeled as extra-virgin…. Italy has become the poster child for olive oil fraud. The world is watching Italy, and they’re finally starting to take action.”
The number thrown around a lot by olive oil professionals, and in the 60 Minutes report is 70 percent — as in, 70 percent of olive oil on the shelves is inauthentic in some way. This number comes from a study released by a UC Davis consumer research group in 2010 which found that approximately 69 percent of extra-virgin olive oils in retail channels did not pass sensory tests to meet the strict standards that designation requires. The study, however, was questioned by a group of lawyers who believed that the results were “wildly inconsistent” and would not hold up in a courtroom.
A more recent anecdotal study, released in 2015 by the National Consumers League, found that six out of 11 bottles (about 55 percent) of extra-virgin olive oil from four major retailers (Whole Foods Market, Trader Joe’s, Safeway, and Giant) failed to meet extra-virgin requirements. That study has not been discredited. Anecdotally, David Neuman, an olive oil expert and CEO of GAEA North America, a specialty food company, wagers that number is likely closer to 80 percent.
“The day I started in this industry, I knew that fraud was a serious problem,” Neuman said. “It’s nothing new. This has been going on for thousands of years. The crazy thing is that these people don’t think they’re doing the wrong thing. It’s generational. They’re raised in this world of making something and calling it something else. Olive oil is an easy sell. Put it in a fancy bottle, slap an Italian name on it, and it will sell like Kraft mac n’ cheese. There’s no incentive for grocery stores to get the good stuff.”
Neuman explained that as an olive oil expert or even a layman, you could walk into a grocery store, pick up a bottle of olive oil, take a whiff, and immediately sense the difference. Adulterated oil, he said, will smell waxy, slick, or even like stinky feet. With real extra-virgin olive oil, you’ll immediately be overpowered by the strong scent of pepper and freshly-cut grass. Although it’s almost impossible to nail down a definitive percentage of authentic olive oils, the proof is in consumer reviews. In blind taste tests, Neuman says, consumers will often pick out or prefer the diluted or fake stuff because that’s what they’re used to.
Central Market, a Texas-based grocery store chain, he said, is the only major grocery store that he knows of that wiped each and every questionable olive oil brand off the shelves, and will require a certificate of lab-tested authenticity from the oils it sells starting March 31.
But not everyone feels that olive oil inauthenticity is a rampant problem in the industry. The North American Olive Oil Association, a non-for profit trade organization that represents most major olive oil companies in North America, has maintained that the claims made in the documentary are largely exaggerated.
“What really surprised us is this claim that 70 to 80 percent of extra-virgin olive oil is fake,” said Eryn Balch, executive vice president of the NAOOA. “Our tests indicate anything but. We actually are the only entity in North America taking samples on a regular basis and sending them for testing overseas. We rarely find a problem.”
“But ask her if they test for sensory defects, or just do chemical testing,” David Neuman suggested. He claims that most olive oils will pass a chemical test because the chemistry is fairly simple, but it’s a lot more difficult for subpar olive oil to pass a sensory test that uses a panel of olive oil experts.
“This may vary depending on the purpose of the testing, but for our Seal program [recognizing NAOOA members in good standing], we do both chemical and sensory and to check for adulteration we always perform the full chemical tests,” Balch responded. “We would caution against claims made by tasters or groups not recognized by the International Olive Council – quality checks are not sufficient to detect adulteration.”