Have you ever actually tasted your olive oil? By itself? Yeah, I know… it would just taste… well… oily, right? That’s what I thought.
Until today. I went to our local spice company. Good heavens, is it glorious to walk into a store devoted to spices! Wow! Okay, I’ll take a little of this, and I’m completely out of that, and I’ve never heard of this… I’ll take a little to try. Salt free blends? Absolutely! I like having control over how much salt is in my food.
Pretty olive oils, they look like wine bottles. Not as expensive as some extra virgin olive oil I’ve seen, but definitely more than I pay. Ah, well, extra virgin olive oil is extra virgin olive oil. They’re all the same, as long as it says “extra virgin” on it.
NOT! The proprietor pulled out a little bottle of what he described as one of the most expensive olive oils out there in the stores. Wavy little bottle, held maybe 6 ounces, and he said it cost $22. Yikes! He poured a little into a cup, and we tasted it. It had a mild rancid flavor, and, after about half a minute, it turned a bit bitter on my tongue. Blech. He gave us a taste of their extra virgin olive oil which was produced by a friend of his in California. You know, I had heard of people who drink a bit of olive oil every day for their health, and I could see how if they drink this stuff. Full, round flavor, mildly fruity. No rancid taste, no bitter aftertaste. It was wonderful! They sold me, and I bought a 17.5 ounce bottle for $16.
Still, was regular store-bought olive oil really that different? Maybe that was a very old sample he would pull from, so of course it could be rancid. Maybe it was very good at first? Maybe it didn’t even cost $22… how do I know?
So I get home and pull out my trusty bottle of Filippo Berio. Okay, I know that “real” olive oil aficionados (gracious, what would I do without spell check?) pooh-pooh store-bought olive oil, but I’m not snobby. As long as it does the job, I’m good. So I’m going to taste it. I pour a little into a bowl, and tip it into my mouth…
It was wretched! Almost immediately, a strong bitterness overcame my mouth, and I couldn’t even wait for the rest of the flavor. I spat it out and looked frantically for my Dr. Pepper to rid myself of the vile taste. How could I have been inflicting this odious oil on my family all this time without realizing it? Yuck!
Okay, okay, I believe the man now!
So… what does this have to do with fraud? I’m glad you asked.
It seems that a number of companies abroad that export olive oil to the USA and other countries have been doing all kind of things to increase profits, such as:
- adding chlorophyll to sunflower or soybean oil and selling it as extra virgin olive oil (even in Italy!)
- selling colored and flavored Swedish turnip oil as EVOO
- selling canola oil as EVOO (I assume it was colored at least, since canola oil is very light)
- selling hazelnut oil as EVOO
- shipping the oil-du-jour to Italy and transferring it to Italian tanks, so that it can then be sold as Italian EVOO
- mixing foreign oils with a tiny amount of Italian olive oil so that it can be sold as Italian EVOO
- pressing oil from already fallen olives (overripe and beginning to rot), which is fine for use as lamp oil, then filtering and chemically refining it so it is safe to consume, mixing it with good oil, and selling it as EVOO
Californian olive oil producers have filed suit to try to stop the fraud.
Sources (besides the proprietor of the store):
Forty arrested in oil fraud
Olive oil regulation and adulteration
New Yorker: Slippery Business
LA Times: Lab tests cast doubt on olive oil’s virginity
Report on lab testing of imported olive oil
Sources for California olive oil:
California Olive Oil Council