Thursday, April 05, 2012

Adulteration And Corruption In The Olive Oil Trade

This article attracted a lot of attention in 2007 when it was first published. Aside from the bad news it delivers about the provenance and quality of olive oil, it's actually an enjoyable read:

Slippery Business, The Trade In Adulterated Olive Oil, by Tom Mueller, The New Yorker Magazine, August 13, 2007

Mueller begins with a tale of traveling oil:
"On August 10, 1991, a rusty tanker called the Mazal II docked at the industrial port of Ordu, in Turkey, and pumped twenty-two hundred tons of hazelnut oil into its hold. The ship then embarked on a meandering voyage through the Mediterranean and the North Sea. By September 21st, when the Mazal II reached Barletta, a port in Puglia, in southern Italy, its cargo had become, on the ship’s official documents, Greek olive oil."

That "Greek olive oil" (really hazelnut oil, sometimes sunflower seed oil) was eventually sold "to some of the largest producers of Italian olive oil, among them Nestlé, Unilever, Bertolli, and Oleifici Fasanesi." It ended up in the hands of consumers worldwide as premium Italian olive oil. This practice is lucrative for traders because they don't have to pay import duties on oil that appears to originate from within the EU, plus they receive millions in EU subsidies for supporting the olive oil industry!
"In 1997 and 1998, olive oil was the most adulterated agricultural product in the European Union."
"Profits were comparable to cocaine trafficking, with none of the risks."
You might think chemists could tell what kind of oil they had on their hands; they can, for the less sophisticated switches. But high-tech adulteration produces effective camouflage. When "oil is doctored with substances like hazelnut oil and deodorized lampante [lower grade] olive oil, [it is] extremely difficult to detect by chemical analysis."

Humans, however, can differentiate high-grade oil from low-grade:
"The E.U., recognizing that laboratory tests fail to expose many acts of adulteration, instituted strict taste and aroma requirements for each grade of olive oil and established tasting panels, certified by the International Olive Oil Council, an office created by the United Nations, to enforce them.

According to the E.U. regulations, extra-virgin oil must have appreciable levels of pepperiness, bitterness, and fruitiness, and must be free of sixteen official taste flaws, which include “musty,” “fusty,” “cucumber,” and “grubby.”

“If there’s one defect, it’s not extra-virgin olive oil — basta, end of story,” Flavio Zaramella, the president of the Corporazione Mastri Oleari, in Milan, one of the most respected private olive-oil associations, told [Mueller]."

The description of a panel tasting is delightful:
"Cradling the glasses containing the first sample in their palms to keep the oil warm, they removed the lids, inserted their noses, and snuffled loudly, some closing their eyes. They sipped the oil, and began sucking in air violently, a technique known as strippaggio, which coats the taste buds with oil and helps its aromas ascend to the nasal passages. After the first volcanic slurps, the strippaggi grew softer and more meditative, and took on personal notes, the marquess’s wheezy and almost wistful, Zaramella’s deep and wet, as if he were gargling Epsom salts.
The Mastri Oleari panelists were remarkably consistent, agreeing not only on the subtle flavors — artichoke, fresh-cut grass, green tomato, kiwi — suggested by the oils but also on their intensity.
Even the most creative criminals have difficulty outwitting a properly trained tasting panel."
Unfortunately, discovering an oil is adulterated doesn't necessarily lead to its recall or relabeling. With players this big, and officials sometimes turning a blind eye (and pocketing a greased palm), finger-pointing could land the pointer in hot water, and in debt, since the company seeks damages from him!

So, is olive oil still being adulterated? David Firestone, an FDA chemist who was the agency’s olive-oil specialist from the mid-sixties to 1999 told Mueller:
“My experience over a period of some fifty years suggests that we can always expect adulteration and mislabelling of olive-oil products in the absence of surveillance by official sources."
The article noted that some official task forces and tasting panels have ceased operation, and this was before the economic strain of the last 5 years. I thought it was telling that a number of oils sold as extra virgin didn't live up to that designation in the UCDavis analysis (e.g. Berio, Bertolli, Colavita, Carapelli), as recently as 2010.

I'm now wondering if I've ever tasted real extra virgin olive oil.
Photo of the Mazal II, taken in 1994, from


Romyboo said...

Hmmm... wonder if we're better off sticking to California olive oils, given all this international skulduggery? Or is Mexican sunflower oil (or whatever) sneaking into Cali bottles as well?

Bix said...

Skulduggery is a good word.

If extra virgin is really often virgin, what does that make oil labeled virgin? I found an answer in this article by Leonardo Colavita (it was in reponse to that UCDavis study which shone poorly on imported oils, including Mr. Colavita's):


"They made a research, a German buyer went to the store to pick all the samples. And, of course, the Italian brands were all virgin, that means not good, because they were old."

I guess if you're eating olive oil for polyphenolic compounds and antioxidants, extra virgin is your best bet. But even then, Mr. Colavita says these substances "disturb the palate" and are blended and filtered away in their mass marketed "extra virgin."

bijin said...

Who would have known???Thanks for the article. This is probably why I've never taken to olive oil because sometimes the flavor would be strange or off even that of the EXVOO

Claudia said...

"the Italian brands were all virgin, that means not good, because they were old."

The virgins are not good because they are old! OMG!

Claudia said...

But seriously, Colavita has an EVOO oil called fruttato that I'm going to try. He seems like he cares about his oil.

Bix said...

Funny, Claudia :)

You know, that UCDavis study doesn't seem entirely fair. The California oils were probably grown, processed, packaged, and sold right there in Calif. They didn't have to travel very far and may have been fresher. The imports were grown/processed/packaged overseas and traveled a great distance to get to Calif. Colavita even said that the lot they tested was almost 2 years old! And, what, sitting dusty on the back of a Walmart shelf?

"The California oils were exclusively purchased at Whole Foods shops, while the imported brands were purchased at Bel Air, Costco, Nob Hill, Ralphs, Safeway, and Walmart stores."

There are so many variables here...

Mrs. D said...

That's a good point, Bix...though it sounds like an alternative set of reasons for the same conclusion about what's best to buy.

From personal experience, when I first got some straight-from-the-farm California olive oil, it tasted completely unlike any olive oil I'd ever had. It was jaw-dropping. I don't care if it's the olive oil variety, the freshness, or what. I loved it and I can't go back!

Angela and Melinda said...

Cool, Mrs. D.!