Olive Oil Adulteration

This is an article about olive oil adulteration and fraud with examples of the biggest cases of olive oil fraudulent schemes. Only valuable things are adulterated and extra virgin olive oil is definitely one of them. Learn how far can go the fraud and how different countries fight against olive oil adulteration. Learn the truth and make your choice wisely, based on knowledge and not fake reputations.

Anti-fraud in Ancient Times

 In 1980 a group of archaeologists discovered in the site of the kingdom of Ebla, Syria an archive with thousands of clay tablets that managed to preserve due to the fire that took place in the palace. The tablets are dated 2400 years B.C. and most of them refer to administrative and commercial affairs. Still, some hundreds of them have information about olive oil production and anti-fraud regulations. These tablets describe groups of so called surveyors that were in charge of protecting the olive oil from scams and fraud.

The Romans as well developed very strict regulations on olive oil. On the amphorae, the jars where the olive oil was kept they had inscriptions that showed where the oil was produced, the name of the producer, date, quantity and quality of the product. Since imports and exports of olive oil were common, the Romans also required in case of delivery, the name of the person who imported the olive oil and the name of the one who confirmed its arrival to be written on these amphorae. The weight was also very important as it was checked both at the departure and arrival to avoid theft and substitution of the oil with lower quality oils.

 Toxic Syndrome Spain 1981

 olive oil adulterationIn 1981 a huge scandal took place in Spain where more than 600 people died because of adulterated olive oil which contained rapeseed oil and aniline. Colza oil (lubricant for machinery, in commerce called rapeseed oil) was imported from France as cooking oil and was refined in Spain, Seville. This oil was sold at the street markets as olive oil. It is believed that the toxic compounds derived from the process of refinement. The disease was called Toxic Syndrome and appeared like a lung disease but had uncommon features. The first cases of the syndrome were located in Madrid. This was the most dramatic case of olive oil adulteration in Modern history, but still, the fraud continued, the only difference is that no toxic oils are labeled today as olive oil, but just very low quality ones. In 90’s cases of rapeseed oil being sold as olive oil have been detected as well.

 Olive Oil Fraud in Italy

olive oil adulteraion in ItalyDuring 90’ and after 2000 Italy was accused several times of selling olive oil from other Mediterranean countries as Italian and of mixing the olive oil with other inferior oils. Complaints regarding this matter increased year by year and the virgin Italian olive oil appeared more often not to be as virgin as mentioned. If the oil that was finally mixed with the Italian one was extra virgin olive oil, no matter if it came from Spain, Tunisia, Turkey or Greece, the result in the bottles wouldn’t be noticed. The problem starts when low quality oil is labeled as the finest one.

As a response, in 2007 the Italian Government adopted a law which stated that every bottle of the Italian olive oil would have to declare the farm and press on which it was produced and display exactly what oils were used.

So the new Italian law was really welcomed.

“This will protect our star product against fraud, and make sure people know what they are getting,” said Paolo De Castro, the agriculture minister. Sorry to disagree but since Italy does not produce even the quantity needed for the domestic consumption, how can the final consumer from Russia for example, still believe and trust that the Italian olive oil he purchased from an ordinary supermarket is really coming from Italy? Imports in Italy are made to cover even the domestic needs, while the majority of exports leaving this country are made from foreign oil. Only 4% of these exports have pure Italian olive oil. Italy’s fame for its olive oil seems to be finally just another commercial lie.

But European Union considered that this information on the bottle should not be mandatory but voluntary. And this happened not later than February 2008. So, whose interests is EU protecting? Is it for us, the consumers? Is it promoting the true producer or the fraudulent one? According to EU laws, foreign oil can be sold as Italian olive oil if it is mixed with a small amount of the domestic product.

“The name of the country of origin shall be declared. When the product undergoes substantial processing in a second country in which such processing is carried out shall be considered as the country of origin for labeling purposes’. (“Trade Standards Applying To Olive Oils and Olive Pomace Oils”, I.O.C.)

In March 2008 more than 400 officers arrested 23 people and confiscated 85 farms after they found out that oil from other Mediterranean countries was labeled as Italian. This operation was called “Golden Oil” and as police believed, 91 persons might have been involved in this fraudulent scheme. But these arrests didn’t base only on the mixing Italian olive oil with the foreign one, but also on the fact that the people involved in this were asking money from EU as subsidies for growing olive trees in Italy which you understand were growing in completely other locations. The police officers found invoices to EU for 6.5 million Euro subsidies and 39 million Euro receipts from selling this oil.

“This sort of fraud damages Italy’s image,” said De Castro, the agriculture minister but he also revealed that almost 800 producers were investigated and 200 of them were adulterating olive oil with low quality oils. 

In April 2008, another 40 people were arrested in different regions of Italy for adding chlorophyll to sunflower and soybean oil and selling it as extra virgin olive oil; 25 tons were confiscated.

Tom Mueller and “Extra Virginity”

In 2007 Tom Mueller, an American writer who lives in Italy, wrote an article for “The New Yorker” about the Italian olive oil fraud. Later he published the book “Extra Virginity: The Sublime and Scandalous World of Olive Oil”. His investigation revealed fraudulent schemes in which low quality oils are sold as extra virgin ones, he describes how some guys became extremely rich out of this business and how the Italian government seems to support them instead of the true producers.

But still the most disturbing thing is the attitude of these corrupt business men who seem to have no respect neither for the product, nor the consumer. When one of them takes a bottle of extra virgin olive oil (that his company is producing) in his hands, as describes the book, he says: ”Extra virgin? What this oil got to do with virginity? This is a whore”. Marseglia, the owner of Casa Olearia in Italy, involved in olive oil fraud mentioned that 90 % of oil sold in Italy as extra virgin isn’t of premium grade. “It’s anything but extra-virgin, the oil we have here,” he said. “First of all, let’s give people good oil, then the excellent—all the extraordinary stuff at forty or fifty euros a kilo, which a few idiots in the world can afford—we’ll think about that later, no?”  Tasting oil is easy. It has to have the same pleasurable tastes. If it has an unpleasant one, it’s not good—that’s pretty simple. They say you need a lot of knowledge to understand it, because they want to make the subject seem more intellectual.”

Tom Mueller also gives information about the good authentic olive oil, supporting the real manufacturers who strive to produce the traditional extra virgin olive oil but who are pushed aside by the illegal ones.

The article “Slippery Business” by Tom Mueller in the New Yorker

Operation Lucerna, Spain 2012

In February 2012 Spanish police releases a case of olive oil fraud in which palm, avocado, sunflower and other oils were sold as olive oil. This operation was called Lucerna. 19 people were arrested (15 Spanish, 2 Ecuadorians, 1 Colombian and 1 Italian) in the provinces of Jaen and Cordoba. The adulterated oil was made in an industrial biodiesel plant but even though, it was not toxic according to Guardia Civil. It was then sold either bottled or in bulk to third party businesses.

The police officers have also discovered an international network of 30 companies, located in Spain, Italy and Portugal, which made a 3 million Euro prejudice from avoiding the VAT taxes.

U.C. Davis Report USA

According to the report made by US Davis Olive Center in July 2010, imported extra virgin olive oil often fails international and USDA standards. The tests were made on the samples of extra virgin olive oil sold in California, United States. The results of U.C. Davis laboratory were correlated with the results of Australian Oils Research Laboratory both of these laboratories made tests on the same samples and used similar testing methods. The results showed that 69% of imported olive oil samples and only 10 % of California olive oil failed to meet the sensory (organoleptic) standards for extra virgin olive oil, being actually a lower grade of “virgin” olive oil. Also, 31 % of this lower grade of virgin oils were oxidized and had poor quality.  83% of the imported samples that failed the sensory standards also failed the German/Australian D.A.G.’s standards.

But the results are somehow skeptical. First of all, the report was financed by California Olive oil Council and by 3 of California’s largest olive oil producers (125000$) who had much to gain by lowering the reputation of the imported olive oils. Also, some chemical tests used in this investigation are not universally accepted.

Canada’s Example

Canada's example against olive oil adulterationAccording to Canwest reporter Susan Semenak in a March 2010 internet article fraudulent actions of olive oil importers and distributors are being searched and condemned in Canada, a country that seems to have a better system than many others regarding the anti-fraud measures. The laboratory in Ottawa is the only one in North America accredited by the International Olive Oil Council to conduct in-depth analyses of suspicious oils. As the article shows, in 2009 three Canadian importers and distributors of olive oil were convicted under the Canada Food and Drug Act. In May the same year, the Toronto-based importer and distributor Jan K. Overweel Ltd., was fined $40,000 and ordered to dispose of more than 27 tons of seized olive oil that was labeled extra-virgin olive oil but found to be 50 per cent sunflower oil. In July 2009, Eddie Zilli, president of Santa Maria Foods of Toronto, which markets Mastro olive oil and other products, was convicted of three offences under the Food and Drugs Act and was ordered to pay a total fine of $150,000 and ordered 47,400 liters of seized oil to be disposed of. One more time, half of the oil sold as olive oil was actually sunflower type. The CFIA reported that in 2007, 15 of 45 samples of extra-virgin olive oil taken from  Canadian store shelves and tested in Ottawa’s lab had been adulterated with sunflower, canola and soybean oils or refined pomace oil.

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