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Buyer beware

(article, Jim Dixon)

A recent article in the New Yorker about adulterated olive oil sent Italian-food lovers across the country to their pantries. Could that expensive bottle of oil, clearly labeled “extra virgin,” hold something else altogether?

Tom Mueller’s story, "Slippery Business," described how thousands of tons of Turkish hazelnut oil were blended with olive oil and sold to unwitting consumers as Italian extra-virgin olive oil in the 1990s. The motivation? Good old greed.

“Profits were comparable to cocaine trafficking, with none of the risks,” one investigator from the European Union’s anti-fraud office told Mueller.

A valuable product since antiquity, olive oil has always been susceptible to fraudulent trade practices. Mueller points out that the ancient Romans probably did more to protect against oil scammers than today’s Italian government. After all, these are the same people who still allow “Made in Italy” to be displayed on bottles that contain oil from Spain, Tunisia, Greece, and other countries. 

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Fortunately, olive oil adulterated with hazelnut oil and other lower-grade seed oils doesn’t usually end up in a fancy bottle; it’s mostly sold on the bulk market. But mislabeled oil is still something to worry about. 

“One of the biggest frauds of all is the false classification,” Mueller told National Public Radio’s Michele Norris in an interview about the article. He was referring to the fairly common practice of labeling blends of refined and virgin oils “extra virgin,” something that’s not even illegal in the U.S. The FDA doesn’t use the same language as the International Olive Oil Council, so the very precise definition of "extra virgin" that applies in the European Union doesn’t apply to the olive oils sold in even the priciest U.S. markets.

So what’s an American consumer to do?

Mueller, in a response to an NPR listener, said you need to know where the olives were grown and who made the oil. But that’s not so easy with oils from Italy and other European producers. 

Price can be a good guide: If an imported oil claims to be extra virgin but costs less than $10 for 500 milliliters (about a quart), the odds are good it doesn't meet the IOOC's definition of "extra virgin" and is probably a blend of refined and virgin oil. 

Bottles are another tipoff: Clear bottles are bad, dark bottles are good. If an oil packed in a clear bottle is truly extra virgin, the constant light exposure will make it turn brown fairly quickly.

Here in the States, California produces the majority of our domestic-origin olive oil, and the California Olive Oil Council certifies state-produced oils. The council's seal on a bottle guarantees that the oil meets the IOOC standards for extra virgin. 

The California council has asked the FDA to adopt the IOOC standards for all olive oils sold in this country. But that request was made back in 2004, and the regulations haven’t changed yet. 

As the ancient Romans used to say, caveat emptor.

Also on Culinate: Jim Dixon's explanation of olive-oil labels.

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