Fraud in the olive oil business is making headlines around the United States and the world, thanks mostly to publicity surrounding Tom Mueller’s book “Extra Virginity,” which focuses on the adulteration of olive oil and big money that goes along with the scams.
At the same time the problem has blown up in Italy – the second largest supplier of olive oil in the world – where investigators have found that Italy’s top olive oil producers have mixed their oil with other, lower-grade oils and passed them off as extra virgin Italian olive oil. The problem in olive oil fraud is so serious that China initially blocked imports of Italian oil and now has customs officials investigating fraudulent oil.
“Mueller found that fraud was extensive, particularly adulteration and false labeling. The world’s largest former dealer in olive oil, one Domenico Ribatti, plea-bargained his way to 13 months in prison during the 1990s for passing off Turkish hazelnut oil, which he had refined in his own plant, as olive oil,” according to The Guardian. “Another prominent importer, Leonardo Marseglia – appropriately based in a town called Monopoli – has variously been accused of selling cheap non-European oils as Italian ones, fudging documents to shirk import tariffs and forming a criminal network to smuggle contraband. Marseglia has denied the charges.”
Mueller’s book was sold out on Amazon and the the book’s conclusions are hard to miss: Much olive oil sold around the world isn’t extra virgin olive oil – even if it is advertised as such. In other words: buyer beware. That extra virgin olive oil (EVOO) you just bought may have other types of oil in it and none of the health benefits that EVOO offers.
None of this is a surprise to us at Il Fiorello Olive Oil Company. Our mission from our inception is to produce world-class EVOO and teach people about olive oil. As we like to say “olive oil is an ancient food that deserves a place at your table.” But only if it’s good oil.
We know Mr. Mueller and have cheered him on since his groundbreaking article “Slippery Business” appeared in the “New Yorker” in 2007. The article exposed the criminal enterprise of fraud in olive oil and was roundly applauded by those interested in food purity and consumer safety.
The owners of Il Fiorello, Mark and Ann Sievers, educate the public about olive oil at their farm in Suisun Valley, which is right outside of Fairfield, Calif. They offer tastings that include how to find real extra virgin olive oil and tours of their state-of-the-art olive mill, which helps produce the oils that have won awards locally and internationally.
California is lucky in that it has a nonprofit advocacy group, the California Olive Oil Council, which has professional taste panels that help certify extra virgin oils in the state. Il Fiorello also works with UC Davis that has a world-renowned olive program. UC Davis did a study that found that 73 percent of the most popular imported olive oils failed international standards for extra virgin olive oil, according to a UC Davis 2011 press release.
“The United States is the third-largest consumer of olive oil in the world,” said Dan Flynn, executive director of the UC Davis Olive Center. “While there are many excellent imported and domestic olive oils available, our tests indicate that there are serious quality problems out there.”
Consumers can take steps to ensure they are getting true EVOO that is healthy rather than oils that are chemically changed or mixed with other oils.
· Olive oil is like other fruit juices: The fresher the juice the better. Look for the mill date on the bottle. Do not use oil that is two years or more past that mill date.
· Only buy oil in dark bottles, unless you plan on promptly using the oil. Light and heat damage oil, so make sure to protect it by keeping it in cool cupboards.
· Olive oil comes in many colors, from bright green to golden colored. Color is not a gauge for quality.
· If possible, buy olive oil from those who operate a mill or farm olives. You will find the freshest, most healthful oils on the farms.
The California Olive Oil Council has a list of its certified oils here.
Another good source for olive-related information is the UC Davis Olive Center, where you will find the university’s olive oil studies and other important information.
We at Il Fiorello are always open to questions about olive oil and offer tours and tastings at our mill. Reach us at (707) 864-1529.