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February  8, 2012

Olive Oil’s Dark Side

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In the August 13, 2007, issue of the magazine, Tom Mueller wrote about corruption in the olive-oil trade. By the late  nineteen-nineties, olive oil—often cut with cheaper oils, such as hazelnut and  sunflower seed—was the most adulterated agricultural product in the European  Union. The E.U.’s anti-fraud office established an olive-oil task force, “yet  fraud remains a major international problem,” Mueller wrote. “Olive oil is far  more valuable than most other vegetable oils, but it is costly and  time-consuming to produce—and surprisingly easy to doctor.”

Nearly five years later, fraud remains a problem. Mueller has expanded the  scope of his article’s research with his recent book “Extra Virginity: The Sublime and Scandalous World of Olive  Oil,” which focusses on the contamination of olive oil not only by seed oils  but by the misuse of the label “extra virgin” on olive oils that don’t meet that  designation’s standards. Mueller recently took the time to answer questions on  olive oil and the risks involved in its trade; an edited version of the exchange  appears below.

Why olive oil?

I’d been living in Italy for about ten years when I happened to see footage  of olive farmers blockading the ports of Bari and Monopoli, in southern Puglia,  with their tractors, in protest of what they said were imports of vegetable oils  from elsewhere in the Mediterranean that were being illegally turned into olive  oil by unscrupulous olive-oil producers and merchants. This caught my eye, and  when I spoke with my editor at The New Yorker a short time later I  suggested a story on olive oil. During the reporting for the story, I immersed  myself in the subject, discovering a historic, cultural, religious,  anthropological, and—yes—criminal depth to olive oil that seemed to deserve  fuller treatment in a book.

Your reporting documents the shady and sometimes dangerous practice of  olive-oil adulteration. Can you give a bit of background?

Olive-oil fraud has been around for millennia. The earliest written mention  of olive oil, on cuneiform tablets at Ebla in the twenty-fourth century B.C.,  describes teams of inspectors who toured olive mills on behalf of the king,  looking for fraudulent practices. The Romans established an international trade  in olive oil, and certain emperors rose to power on olive-oil wealth—they were  the ancient counterpart of today’s oil sheikhs. In their practical way, the  Romans instituted elaborate mechanisms to prevent fraud. At Monte Testaccio, the  Romans stored twenty-five million amphorae that held 1.75 billion liters of  olive oil. Many amphora fragments bear tituli picti, stamped  inscriptions or handwritten notes in black or red ink that record information  such as the locality where the oil was produced, the name of the producer, the  weight and quality of the oil when the amphora was sealed, and the name of the  merchant who imported it, the name of the imperial functionary who confirmed  this information when the amphora was reopened at its destination in Rome, and  so on. These careful records were intended to prevent the siphoning off of oil  en route, or the substitution of an inferior product.

Olive-oil fraud continues today, though modern governments are often less  thorough and effective than the Romans at preventing it. Olive oil has  historically been one of the most frequently adulterated products in the  European Union, whose profits, one E.U. anti-fraud investigator told me, have at  times been “comparable to cocaine trafficking, with none of the risks.” In  America, olive-oil adulteration, sometimes with cut-rate soybean and seed oils,  is widespread, but olive oil is not tested for by the F.D.A.—F.D.A. officials  tell me their resources are far too limited, and the list of responsibilities  far too long, to police the olive-oil trade.

Modern olive-oil production has changed since the Roman times, too. Where  is its future headed?

Two diametrically opposed trends exist in the olive-oil business. In the  first, toward high-quality olive oil, new milling technologies—stainless steel  mills, high-speed centrifuges, temperature- and oxygen-controlled storage  tanks—are making it possible to produce the best extra-virgin olive oils in  history:  fresh, complex, and every bit as varied as wine varietals. (There are  about seven hundred different kinds of olives.) Consumer demand for high-quality  olive oil in all of its variety, both in Europe and in North America, is  skyrocketing.

On the other hand, there’s a strong downward pressure on olive-oil quality,  especially among the huge Spanish-, Portuguese-, and Italian-owned olive-oil  traders and bottling companies. There is a massive output of low-grade olive  oils, particularly in Spain and North Africa but throughout the E.U., which  producers are selling as “extra virgin” olive oil, even though this low-grade  oil doesn’t meet the requirements of the extra-virgin grade. (E.U. and U.S.  trade standards require extra-virgin olive oil to be free of sensory defects,  and these oils are deeply flawed.) New methods of chemical refinement,  commonly known as “deodorization,” allow unscrupulous producers to remove  sensory defects and sell their sub-par oils, illegally, as extra-virgin. (By  law, extra-virgin olive oil cannot have undergone chemical manipulation.) The  spot price of “extra-virgin olive oil” in European markets has dropped as low as  1.8 euro per kilo (about a liter). Honest producers around the world are being  undercut by cheap foreign oil.

So, while the best extra-virgin olive oils in history are now being made,  more and more low-grade oils are also being included in the category, stretching  it beyond all meaning. In the end, I believe that increasing discernment and  quality-consciousness on the part of North American consumers will drive a  quality revolution in American olive oil, similar to that which has already  occurred in wine, coffee, microbrew beer, artisanal cheeses, etc., which will  pass along increasing profits to top-quality producers, allowing them to survive  and even prosper. But the olive-oil industry is at a critical moment: if honest  producers aren’t able to earn a fair price for their premium oil (which is far  more expensive than the cheap stuff to produce), then many will go out of  business. Many already have. The risk is that just as American consumers wake up  to great oil, the supplies of it dry up.

Given that so many “extra-virgin” oils are actually inferior oils cut  with other products, where should the average shopper buy his oil?

Ideally, at a mill, where you can see the fresh olives turned into oil, and  get to know the miller—in an industry where the label means so little, personal  trust in the people who have made and sold it is important. Barring this, try to  visit a store where you can taste before you buy; an increasing number of  olive-oil specialty stores exists throughout America, even in small towns and  unexpected corners of the country. In a conventional retail store, certain  characteristics of labelling and bottling suggest (though they don’t guarantee)  high quality: a harvest date (as opposed to a meaningless “best by” date), a  specific place of production and producer, mention of the cultivar of olives  used, dark glass bottles (light degrades olive oil), a D.O.P. seal on European  oils, and a California Olive Oil Council seal on oil made in the U.S.

What most surprised you as you were researching your book?

Aside from the high incidence of fraud in olive oil, which stunned me, I  found the taste panel the most surprising feature of the olive-oil world. These  groups of eight tasters, plus a panel leader—which meet regularly to train their  palates to recognize the seventeen official sensory flaws listed by  international regulation, and, at the same time, to identify the characteristics  of high-quality oil—provide amusing and sometimes theatrical displays: loud  slurping, poetic language about olive oils great and repugnant, and some  larger-than-life characters.

So what’s your favorite olive oil?

Tough question. As per the above, the range of olive oils is huge—it’s  like  asking what my favorite wine is. All the more difficult because, apart from  oddballs like me who love to sip olive oil neat, it really is a condiment and  not a culinary soloist. That said, from a purely taste point of view, the olive  oil “Crudo” made by the Schiralli family in Bitetto, Puglia, and “Balduccio” made by Andreas März near Pistoia, Tuscany, are two of my very favorites.

I’ve launched the Truth in Olive Oil movement to raise awareness of great oil  and call out fraudsters, connect consumers with excellent but little-known  producers, pressure authorities to act, and generally solve the world’s problems  through olive oil. Seriously, though, I do hope this Web site and its following  will create something of a grass-roots movement in olive oil, which will do what  the F.D.A. and other authorities have so far failed to do—help police the  olive-oil market—and will increase consumer discernment of the vast complexity  of olive oil.

Illustration by Joost Swarte.