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A Citizen's Guide to

Olive Oil


Some History

Clay tablets found at Ebla, in Syria, describe the activities of a 2,500 year-old anti-fraud squad who were responsible for ensuring the purity of oil, while the classical philosopher and doctor Galen complained of unscrupulous traders adulterating their olive oil with liquid lard to make it go further.

But ancient foodies were lucky — the Roman Empire had strict controls in place to minimise such double dealing.

It's a Criminal Business

Today, EU regulation of the olive oil trade is not all that it might be. Italian newspapers regularly report producers being robbed at gunpoint by drivers who arrive in the middle of the night with tankers.

In July 2011, Spanish police arrested the leader of a gang responsible for the theft of more than a million litres of olive oil, siphoned from storage tanks in Murcia, and shipped under false paperwork to Italy for sale.

A few years ago, Bertolli, the biggest olive oil brand in the world, suffered a multi-million euro theft at its plant near Milan.

The most common fraud involves diluting extra virgin oil with a lesser grade — such as lampante, or lamp-oil, judged unfit for human consumption because of its high acid content.

Frequently the oil is substituted for a different type of oil entirely, often originating outside the EU where production is cheaper.

Last year, two Spanish businessmen were sent to prison for selling extra virgin olive oil that turned out to be 75% sunflower oil, a shipment of Turkish hazelnut oil which, after a voyage around Europe, arrived in southern Italy in September 1991 with papers declaring it was Greek olive oil. There it was mixed with the real thing, and sold to unsuspecting customers including Nestle, owners of Buitoni oil, and Bertolli for use in their products.

The substantial profits associated with such fraud enable crooks to bribe low-paid customs officials and police to turn a blind eye to such arrivals. But this deception isn’t just confined to smugglers and gangsters.

Market Testing

In 2004, an olive oil producer called Andreas Marz, concerned about the declining quality of Italian olive oil, decided to conduct his own test.

He bought 31 different kinds of extra virgin olive oil from German supermarkets, and sent them to three expert tasting panels in Florence for analysis.

Only one was judged to meet extra virgin standards, nine were downgraded to virgin, and the rest, including offerings from several major Italian brands, were graded as lampante.

When Marz published the results, those involved in the revelations found themselves hit with lawsuits by Carapelli, makers of ‘Italy’s most beloved extra virgin olive oil’, who seemed to have friends in some very high places indeed.

Marz’s shocking findings changed absolutely nothing. Such adulteration is deceitful, certainly, but pales in comparison to the toxic oil scandal which killed more than 1,000 Spaniards, and seriously injured 24,000 others, in the Eighties.

They fell ill after consuming rapeseed oil intended for industrial use, which had been rendered inedible by the addition of a toxic compound called aniline, used in the production of plastics.

Unscrupulous traders had taken advantage of the low price-tag, repackaged it as olive oil, and sold it for culinary use. Even companies which act within the law are happy to appropriate the premium image of Italian olive oil for lesser blends.

Italian Flags on the bottles

Don’t be fooled by Italian flags or Tuscan olive groves on a label. Italy is one of the world’s largest importers of olive oil, much of which is then blended, stuck into suitably Italian packaging and re-exported.

About 80 per cent of the oil produced in Jaen, southern Spain, for example, is shipped to Italy, where it can be packaged and sold by Italian brands as ‘packed’ or ‘bottled in Italy’, for a far higher price than Spanish brands.

Bertolli, for all its rustic Italian advertising, actually imports about four-fifths of the oil it uses, mostly from Spain, North Africa and the Middle East.

Capturing Health Benefits

It doesn’t really matter, from a health point of view, whether olive oil comes from Tuscany or Tunisia, its apparent ability to help protect the body from some forms of cancer and cardiovascular disease — depend very much on the quality of the oil.

Only virgin oils can claim the full range of health benefits attributed to olive oil because the refining process strips lesser oils of its vitamins.

But without the controls, of the kind in place for wine, there is no incentive for the olive oil industry to clean up its act.

Olive oil doesn't come cheap - beware of anything under about £6 a litre
When you buy wine, you can usually trust that the contents match the label: if it says Chateau Margaux 1949 on the bottle, you’re not going to find last year’s Chilean Malbec inside.

Olive oil labels, by contrast, give very little information to the consumer: an oil costing £20 a bottle will look, on the shelf, very similar to one retailing at a tenth of the price.

In theory, it should be easy: olive oil is graded into several different types for sale, the most common of which is extra virgin. Extra virgin olive oil is the highest quality, made from the very best olives. Virgin oil, meanwhile, is made with slightly riper olives and so is deemed to have a less superior flavour.

European legislation dictates that any oil labelled virgin must have been extracted from the olive by physical means, such as pressing, rather than by chemical refinement. It also has to pass a taste test conducted by EU experts. Well, that's what's supposed to happen.


'Extra Virginity: The Sublime And Scandalous World of Olive Oil', by Tom Muelle