NYTcaffeI have to confess: Sunday morning I chocked on my morning espresso while looking at my fresh copy of the New York Times. Are Italians a nation of impostors?

This is what at least I got from reading the page from Nicholas Blechman and Tom Mueller.

The information the New York Times provided really didn’t sync with my history of small olive growers who proudly produce a super expensive quality extra virgin olive oil, and that are squeezed by the market prices.

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Extra virgin olive oil sampling. Porto Venere, Liguria region, Summer 2012

It didn’t sync with the way and the mentality that I know Italians have when it comes to food: an absolute respect, an almost maniac research of quality, and strong enforced laws to support the food system.

I found the NY Times infographics uninformed and incorrect, possibly jumping to the wrong conclusions.

This is why in these couple of days I franticly tried to gather information around the subject.

Where did the data come from? I asked Tom Mueller with no luck. Then while speaking to a few people in the oil business, I realized that in fact the only possible study this figure could have come from, was a UC Davis research, which took place in two different moments: the first part in 2010 and the second in 2011. I had already read the report some time ago (and even interviewed Dan Flynn, executive director at UC Davis Olive Oil Center), but it didn’t occur to me in the first place that this could be the source since the study was limited in scope and sampling.

Most importantly, the study analyzed imported olive oils in general, comparing to the ones produced in California. Of the 14 bottles analyzed in 2010 (the 69% refers to that first report, not the second one) only two brands are actually Italian, packaging extra virgin olive oil in Italy but not necessary Italian extra virgin.

One of the bigger criticisms to this report – financed by the Californian Olive Oil Council and by some Californian producers- is that it compares imported oils sold on supermarket shelves with those locally produced (California). Extra virgin olive oil deteriorates with times and comparing a year or two-old product with a fresh one is like comparing apples and pears. Not nearly the same thing. Moreover, an oil that could have been extra virgin at time of packaging, could develop defects over time, especially if poorly handled or exposed to light and heat, and not be up to standards after one or two years from production.

The report did not analyze any hi-quality artisanal Italian production. The second report, in 2011, focused on analyzing a fewer number of brands and more samples. The outcome was similar, although a lawsuit was initially filed and then dismissed because test result, conducted by the legal firm, showed results different enough that the firm thought they didn’t have, in fact, a case.

Today I interviewed Dan Flynn again regarding his reports and he confirmed me that the study was not comparing Italian oils to Californian oils, it was “looking at supermarket oils. Most of them are supplied by the bulk oil market:  oils that comes from many different countries and are a blend from multiple countries oil”.

oilshelf300When asked about the main concern of comparing oil with different freshness, Mr. Flynn stated that “I am aware that there was that criticism but we decided to take from the shelf what was available to any consumer. Often, you do not know when it was made. Most of the times the label do not show that information. I do not think – continues Flynn – that we were evaluating anything that had passed its expiration date. Also – he added – we were not trying to evaluate the freshness of the oil but just if those products where meeting the extra virgin oil standards”.

Both reports concluded that “samples failed extra virgin standards for reasons that included ONE OR MORE of the following: oxidation or aging; adulteration or poor quality oil”: not necessarily a fraud, not necessarily “doctored” oils, as the NY Times suggests. But — not an ideal situation, either.

Today, as I am writing, the New York Times is (silently?) revising Sunday’s infographic, to partially dismiss the case against Italy.

Does it mean that we are totally safe? That adulterations do not exist?

Absolutely not.  If you read some of the reactions, articles and comments appeared among Italians on Sunday, there was a lot of self-criticism. As Frank Bruni very wittily once pointed out, this is very much part of our culture: the Italians’ theatrical pessimism. Something that you can understand only if you are Italian. “The news is full of fraud reports, adulteration found by the Italian police. Once again, the world is going to laugh at us” most Italians commented. And this is totally true – frauds, in Italy, are detected on a regular basis. But Italy is the most scrutinized Country, the one that performs the higher number of controls in the world. And it is the country with the stricter rules, too.

Maurizio Servili, professor at the University of Perugia, one of the leading Italian extra virgin olive oil expert and IOC (International Olive Oil Council) member, is absolutely sure the NY Times article was a blunder. “Seed oils are not sold as extra virgin olive oil – not anymore, not in the EU,” tells me Servili. “Seed oils nowadays are very easily detected by regular tests made accordingly to IOC standards. Hazelnut oil may be the most difficult to detect but only if the amount do not exceed 5%, and falsifiers must be… truly good”. The problem nowadays, according to various sources, is in fact more related to low temperature, soft aromatized oils: lower grade olive oils that are refined, mixed with small percentage of good quality oils and labeled as extra virgin olive oil. Extra-virgin olive oil is in fact are made by purely squeezed olives (no chemicals).  To be classified as extra-virgin, oils must meet the IOC sensory and analytical tests. Otherwise they are classified as lower grades virgin oils. Any chemical manipulation, for example deodorization, is considered a fraud. These scams are much more difficult to detect because it’s always olive oil. “Most of the times these lower quality oils are of Spanish production” explain Servili. “Not because we are the good ones – jokes Servili – but because of the way Spanish production is organized: Spain produces 4 times more olives than Italy and have less than half the number of frantoi (mills) than we do. Moreover, they often harvest in a hotter climate then we do and olives may rot quickly. And – add Servili – there is also a cultural trait, where a strong odor (we call it cat’s urine) in extra virgin is almost conceived as a quality in Spain – not so much in other countries”.

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The small, family-owned frantoio in Lerici, Italy

In fact, one of the fundamental rules for producing the best olive oil is speed: the quicker the olives reach the mill, the freshest and higher quality the oil. In Italy, with almost 5,000 frantoi spread around the peninsula, it is easier to quickly get to the mill, yielding a higher quality oil.

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My olive oil trees. Pruning and harvesting is done manually.

Italian production is fragmented and relies on small producers. Trees often grow on slopes that do not allow mechanical harvesting. Handpicking guarantee better quality, but is way more expensive, and therefore Italian olive oil suffer from the competition. Spanish or South Mediterranean olive oil production is usually on a larger scale, sometimes with lower labor cost (Tunisia, Morocco) and, in average, a lower quality product. Spain leads the world olive oil production market and sort of “sets the price” for extra virgin olive oil. “Frauds in Spain are also more frequent,” says Servili “ because very often these very large Spanish implants can both mill olives and refine the oil. In Italy there is never such overlapping. Oil has to travel from the mill to the refinery, and papers and documents must be issued. There is no guarantee that this doesn’t happen in Italy as well, but because of the papers, it is less likely”.

That is why the EU very recently introduced another chemical analysis, the Ethyl Ester, which plays a fundamental role in detecting bad quality oils: “it doesn’t necessarily detects fraud – suggest Servili – but all poor quality extra virgin olive oil, hence deodorized oils” The imposed limit is going to gradually reduce from 40 to 30 mg per kg. in the next couple of years. In Italy this analysis is taken so seriously that the “salva olio” (literally: save the oil) law, approved already 2 years ago, approximately halved the EU Ester limit for Italian extra virgin olive oil. Companies that produce 100% Italian extra virgin olive oil and surpass this lower benchmark are eligible for further inspections. “Italy could not do more” explain Servili “ because we are part of the EU, we could not approve a law that unilaterally lowered the EU benchmark and excluded from labeling the oil testing above the limit. We then decided to strictly monitor the companies that surpass this self imposed lower limit, as we think that extra virgin olive oil truly produced in Italy should easily pass this stricter test.”

Frauds do exist. It’s a true war in Italy. But “while the EU law require a minimum of 1 test each 1000 tons of olive oil, in Italy with all the overlapping authorities that performs inspections, we easily more than double this number of tests” tells me Alberto Grimelli, agronomist and journalist, director of the online Magazine (specialized in technical aspects of food and agricultural products) Teatronaturale.it. “We are talking about lab tests, of course and not ‘smell tests’ as the New York Times stated. This is why we detect so many frauds,” he adds. Grimelli was probably one of the few to underline a word choice made by Blechman in last Sunday’s newspaper: “he chose the word producers, and not growers – tells me Grimelli – and this is totally true. I cannot accept when some Italian companies (bottlers and not growers) exploit the Italian name and sells oils which are not Italian. A business that is legal but misleading for the consumer”.

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My olio nuovo, produced from just 18 trees in the Liguria region, costs me an average of 15-20 euros per kg. versus a bulk market price of Spanish extra virgin olive oil of approx. 2 euros per kg.

The problem is that Italy consumes (internally) more than what produces. Therefore Italy imports olive oil. But since our product is so renowned, many oil distributors in Italy combine oils of different origins and sell them with Italian brands. Many times these companies are not even Italian anymore: this is the case for example of Carapelli, Bertolli, Sasso, which have been sold to the Spanish food group Deoleo many years ago. Some other times companies are Italian, some are even American, with an Italian-sounding brands. In general, these large companies specialize in blending, marketing, and distribution. They source bulk oil mostly from outside Italy, seeking the lowest price. These companies create a consistent, mild flavor profile for consumers around the world and compete in retail and food service markets on the basis of price.

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Reading carefully the label is fundamental for choosing the right oil

Yes packaging oil coming from “Mediterranean Countries” in Italy is allowed, and because one of the blending and packaging steps are technically performed in Italy, it can be labeled as Italian oil”. But the European law also requires that the label include the product origin, and if the oil is Italian it should state “made with Italian oil” or “made with 100% Italian olives” or something similar. “Many companies,” adds Grimelli “play with the label statements and maybe try to hide where the origin of the oil really is by printing on a corner of the label in very small font.” And, according to Grimelli “frauds may exist even more in countries like the US where rules are not as strict as in Europe.”

In fact, definition of quality standards is delineated by International Olive Council (IOC), an intergovernmental organization based in Madrid, Spain, with 23 member states that represent more than 85% of the world’s olives production. All State members perform both sensory and chemical analysis and enforce with laws those quality standards.

The US is not IOC member, and there is not an FDA standard of identity. Only very recently, in 2010, the USDA adopted a retail grade classification system similar to the IOC’s, which is still only voluntary and NOT mandatory…

As Dan Flynn points out “there is really no enforcement in the US for olive oil quality or authenticity. More needs to be done to protect the consumer.”

The only two associations working toward quality assurance in the US are the COOC (Californian Olive Oil Council), and NAOOA (North American Olive Oil Association). Both are voluntary associations, and members gain their quality seal by submitting olive oil samples and matching the test requirements. NAOOA members are imported oil producers. In order to obtain the seal, the oil must be tested and must meet IOC standards. “The NAOOA quality seals program was launched in 2008 and allows member to subscribe their specific individual brands and products.” Tells me Eryn Balch, executive VIP of NAOOA “Each item will get collected randomly from the market at least twice per year. In order to keep using the seal companies need to pass these tests.” But NAOOA also runs a general monitoring program, in conjunction with IOC.

“This program has been going on for almost 25 years now.”  Says Balch “we collect between 100 to 200 of samples every year from the supermarket shelves. We send these samples to certified IOC labs overseas and they do perform the full test for purity and authenticity. We get reports back and if any sample was not in compliance with IOC standards we send letters to the companies and let them know that there is a problem. If we notice that the problem persists, then we send letters to government authorities, either State department or FDA or USDA looking for some kind of corrective actions”.

According to Mrs. Balch, the fraud problem is really not as big as some articles may suggest. “Problematic brands only represent 2% of the domestic market,” affirm Balch. And what happens when the monitoring program incur in these problems? Are legal actions ever performed? Here comes the tricky part. “We have petitioned the FDA already twice” says Balch “because they are the only one who would have National enforcement authority and we would like them to adopt a standard of identity that matches the global olive oil standard (IOC). Then it would be very clear what is considered extra virgin, virgin and so long, and all the tests methods that you would use to prove that. Until the FDA do not adopt a standard of identity – continues Bach – we need to work on a State-by-State basis”. But so far only four states have adopted standards of identity, very similar to the IOC standards: California, Oregon, New York and Connecticut. Very recently, a case was taken to the New York State court. “This case was actually about regular olive oil, and not extra-virgin, that contained pumace oil and was mislabeled. We were able to get a voluntary permit injunction, which is enforceable by the court” says Balch. But otherwise “taking any legal action is very expensive and risky in this country” says Balch. “What would be easier would be the FDA standards,” she concludes.

COOC is the voluntary association for Californian producers. California production accounts for only about 2% of the US olive oil consumption, and companies that decide to become COOC members need to send olive oil samples for sensory and chemical analysis that are slightly different than the one usually required by IOC: less tests, but for example a stricter free acidity limit of 0.5%.

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DOP seal

One of the main parameters measured with test is in fact the free acidity. Contrary to what someone could think, this acidity cannot be tasted but only measured chemically. According to IOC, extra virgin olive oil’s free acidity needs to be inferior to 0.8%. But, as many points out, there is a huge difference between an extra virgin olive oil that has 0.2% and one that has 0.8%, although both are labeled extra virgin. “it’s like comparing Ferrari to Tata in the car business” jokes Servili. An extra virgin olive oil that barely passed the free acidity test could likely not pass the test after being on the supermarket shelves for some time, since olive oil loose quality and freshness over time. Hence, the quality test results by UC Davis…. “It is unlikely that the IOC parameters would become stricter.” Adds Maurizio Servili ,“nations like Spain would have a lot of oil that will not be labeled as extra virgin and this is unthinkable. What I believe would be easier to achieve is to create niche labeling for hi-quality products”. Some of this labeling already exists, like the DPO that represents only about 2% of the Italian extra virgin olive oil production.

Servili is working on an experimental program to accomplish genetic traceability, which will enhance all the health benefits of truly high-quality olive oil and make frauds impossible. His dream is to implement a system that will allow spotlighting the best 20% of the Italian extra virgin olive oil production. “We have an immense biodiversity with over ninety different cultivars, a patrimony that has no rivalry. We need to find a better system to evaluate our quality products”.

And this is my hope, too.

Eager to know how to choose an extra virgin olive oil? Stay tuned!

Links:

NY Times revised article

UC Davis 2010 report

UC Davis 2011 report

IOC

NAOOA

COOC

Genetic traceability in olive oil project

Article on Ethyl Ester analysis

Olive Oil production costs in Italy

Olive oil production data in Italy

American olive oil convicted fraud

 

2 Responses to Is Italian extra virgin olive oil a fraud?
  1. chapeau Grazia

    great article thanks for that. To me it all sounds largely like American protectionism. Olive Oil is a great product and producers/farmers are proud people. I always say it’s all about emotion and passion.
    As a horeca wholesaler for olive oils in the Netherlands I get a lot of phone calls and emails of producers who, emotional and passionate tell me about their olive oil, the best in the world. And I think it is great to hear, everytime again. Impossible, but nice to hear :-)
    So, promoting your oil as the best is fine, but promoting your oil by telling the others are not good or even fraudulent….that’s taking it one step too far I guess. Despite the fact that there is a lot going on, let’s be honest about that.
    Too bad by the way that you didn’t get in touch with Tom Mueller. He was pretty pissed with the “article” itself as I understood.

    cheers from Amsterdam,


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