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Olio I

I realize this is dangerous territory (and Albert is sure to disagree with some of this), but blogging/writing serves in part to sort out and try out ideas. So most authorities agree that olive oil fraud is widespread. I have heard suggestions from various sources that between 70 and 90 per cent of extra virgin olive oil (EVOO) sold in America is fraudulent. There are, however, different sorts of fraud. In what is probably the worst case, other oils (walnut, hazelnut, rapeseed etc.) are colored and flavored to resemble olive oil and sold as EVOO, a clear case of deception (1). At a next level, inferior olive oil is deodorized and then blended with enough good oil to resemble EVOO (2). This is in fact olive oil, though it is incorrectly labeled as EVOO and possibly also falsely described as coming from a specific region (most likely Tuscany). Example (3) instead involves oil described as coming from one place (Italy, Tuscany) but really coming from somewhere else (Tunisia, Spain, Puglia). Italy in fact imports vast amounts of oil from Tunisia and Spain and Puglia produces way more than Tuscany. Apparently if one compares production, consumption, and export numbers, the figures just don’t add up. Namely there is no way that Tuscany – oil from Tuscany sells for about double that from other regions – can produce all the oil that is sold as Tuscan. Finally (4) lots of oil may really be olive oil and be properly labeled in terms of origin, but not be extra virgin, a function in part of the vague nature of that appellation: EVOO is produced by mechanical (not chemical) processes, meets certain measurable standards (for example low acidity), and is free from a series of qualitative flaws of taste and aroma (more on this another time). So even oil that is correctly bottled as EVOO may over time or if stored improperly cease being EVOO. What is a consumer to do? According to one Italian expert I heard at a conference recently, European regulations are working pretty well and there is indeed a notable effort being made to prevent fraud. So he claimed that European consumers are probably getting what it says on the label. One might or might not be convinced by that claim. What is notable though is that he described anywhere outside the EU as the “wild west.” And it was indeed he who suggested the 90% figure cited above for oil in the US. Disreputable producers, Italian and others (Italy’s biggest firms are mostly controlled by Spanish companies it seems), are of course shooting themselves in the foot (and more importantly doing a huge disservice to reputable producers). If you believe the above, would you really risk buying Italian or Tuscan oil in the US, unless of course you personally know the producer (well maybe you would if the price is right but that is for abother time)? I figure I am more likely to get accurately labeled oil in the US if it is described as, say, Greek or Tunisian rather than Italian or Tuscan. Or of course, you can buy California oil, imagining that similar levels of fraud have not (yet?) infected the Golden State. The combination of the unusual definition of EVOO and the fact that seemingly 95% of olive oil is sold as EVOO – there is apparently no market for anything else – have ironically created a situation in which the term itself has is in some ways become meaningless. Bon appetit.

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