The Culture of Food and Drink


Home / Agriculture  / The Olive Oil Scandals: Italy Fights Back

The Olive Oil Scandals: Italy Fights Back

In Italy, there's a move to protect olive oil. Credit: Copyright 2016 Julia della Croce

In Italy, there's a move to protect olive oil. Credit: Copyright 2016 Julia della Croce

Between revelations by Italian police in December linking organized crime to 7,000 tons of counterfeit olive oil, and an estimated four-fold increase in adulterated extra virgin following the dismal 2014 olive harvest, there is no denying that fraud remains rampant. With 72 percent worldwide sales of olive oil at stake and all eyes on industry practices, Italy is fighting back.

EU and Italian government and trade organizations, including members of parliament, the Italian Trade Agency, UNAPROL (a consortium of Italian olive oil producers), and even an emissary of the Vatican, met last month to both address the problem of olive oil fraud and to outline their plans for a comeback.

“We must recuperate our damaged reputation,” said Colomba Mongiello, an Italian senator and president of the Counterfeiting Commission. She was responding to a survey conducted at Expo Milan 2015 in October, showing that 99 percent of foreign visitors involved believed that Italian olive oil was adulterated and that the consumer was being cheated. “Our objective is to reach the U.S. market and make them understand the difference between what looks Italian and what is Italian,” she said.

Officials meet

From left, ITA Director General Roberto Luongo, publisher and designer Franco Maria Ricci and Italian senator Colomba Mongiello spoke passionately at the Extract olive oil conference in Rome. Credit: Copyright 2016 Julia della Croce/Forktales

From left, ITA Director General Roberto Luongo, publisher and designer Franco Maria Ricci and Italian senator Colomba Mongiello spoke passionately at the Extract olive oil conference in Rome. Credit: Copyright 2016 Julia della Croce/Forktales

The conference, billed “Extract,” is part of a larger Italian effort to promote the country’s food and wine in the U.S., where imitation products labeled with Italian names, or colors of the Italian flag, are often mistaken for genuine imports. The strategy is two-pronged: legislating tougher penalties for fraud by going after Italian producers who don’t follow regulations, and launching the largest marketing effort ever made to inform American consumers how to taste and use extra virgin olive oil.

“We have to do the same thing we do with wine to get people to understand olive oil,” said culture guru Franco Maria Ricci, who spoke. “Four-year old children in France are taught that wine is an angel. Italy is an olive oil culture and [its] significance needs to be transmitted in the same way …. If we don’t understand its qualities and terroir, we won’t understand its value.”

Crime has always been associated with olive oil, a substance so precious and prized in Mediterranean culture that its production and trade has invariably had a dark side. Merchants have been known to cut extra virgin with cheap oil to increase their profits since ancient times, and farmers had to fear brigands waiting in ambush as they transported oil to market.

Today there is a different kind of criminal on the olive oil trail. It is the unscrupulous producer who intentionally mislabels oils to mislead consumers into thinking they are buying genuine Italian virgin olive oil when they are not. Such murky practices have both hurt ethical producers and confused consumers. As journalist and Zester Daily contributor Nancy Harmon Jenkins, author of “Virgin Territory: Exploring the World of Olive Oil,” told me recently, “The problem … is that there are two kinds of olive oil in the world: commodity oil and excellent oil, which is usually estate-bottled and always very carefully produced …. [but] we keep trying to judge excellent oil as a commodity and vice versa.”

World’s best olive oil

An 850-year-old olive tree in the vineyards of Azienda Agricola Amastuola in Puglia. Credit: Copyright 2016 Nathan Hoyt/Forktales

An 850-year-old olive tree in the vineyards of Azienda Agricola Amastuola in Puglia. Credit: Copyright 2016 Nathan Hoyt/Forktales

If Italy, which arguably produces the best olive oil in the world, has been a hotbed of fraud, it is also at the forefront of combating crime in the business. Where else are police trained to sniff out fakes at every stage of the supply chain? And who, but the Italians, have a system–IGP (Protected Geographical Indication) and the more stringent DOP (Protected Denomination of Origin)—that regulates the way it is made and that can lead us to the very trees it came from, and practically, the humans who crafted it?

From the terraced slopes and soft valleys of Italy’s central regions and the microclimates of Veneto and Liguria, to the expansive southern plateaus and sun-drenched islands, come some of the most sublime olives oils, produced by artisans who have the passion for making it in their bloodlines. Like the country’s new breed of winemakers who focus on quality over quantity, they are making delicious oils with the flavor peculiarities of their particular landscape. Utilizing the benefits of modern technology for cultivation while practicing sustainable growing and traditional picking methods, they are no doubt making better oil than their ancestors did.

How to buy good olive oil

Second-generation producers Francesca and Paola Billi of Castelnuovo di Farfa in Lazio have won many awards for their estate-bottled La Mola olive oil DOP. Credit: Copyright 2016 Nathan Hoyt/Forktales

Second-generation producers Francesca and Paola Billi of Castelnuovo di Farfa in Lazio have won many awards for their estate-bottled La Mola olive oil DOP. Credit: Copyright 2016 Nathan Hoyt/Forktales

That said, not all well-made olive oil carries the DOP seal. If we were to limit ourselves to those alone, we would miss out on many fine extra-virgins. As with “USDA Organic,” the rigorous and costly bureaucratic process discourages many a small ethical producer from applying.

Assuming you are not an expert, the best approach to finding good olive oil is not unlike that for choosing good wine: Find a knowledgeable retailer to guide you. If such a place doesn’t exist in your neighborhood, you can order online from vendors whose buyers are experts. Each of these retailers carries a selection of fresh olive oil that is ethically produced from the current harvest:

Gustiamo in New York City, New York (www.gustiamo.com)

Market Hall Foods in Oakland, California (www.markethallfoods.com)

Zingerman’s in Ann Arbor, Michigan (www.zingermans.com)

Main photo: In Italy, there’s a move to protect olive oil. Credit: Copyright 2016 Julia della Croce/Forktales



Zester Daily contributor Julia della Croce is the author of  "Italian Home Cooking: 125 Recipes to Comfort Your Soul" (Kyle Books), "Pasta Classica" (Chronicle) and 12 other cookbooks.

9 COMMENTS
  • Nancy Harmon Jenkins 3·23·16

    Another excellent on-line retailer is olio2go.dom. Add them to your list. And question any retailer about the date of the oil–you are looking for 2015 harvest. If the retailer can’t tell you that, change retailers.
    And don’t ever expect to find good olive oil in your local supermarket. Even the best oils are all too frequently mishandled by people who don’t know when they’re not doing it right (e.g., displaying fine oils in a sunny window or under strong shop lights).

  • Nancy Harmon Jenkins 3·23·16

    Another excellent piece of advice: those who want to know more about the best extra-virgin olive oil and how to tell it from commercial junk will do themselves (and me) a favor by picking up a copy of Virgin Territory: Exploring the World of Olive Oil, published by Houghton Mifflin in 2015 and widely available
    .

  • JRATT 1956 3·24·16

    I found a great place to buy EVOO. Excellent prices in the 3 and 5 liter Tins. Free shipping on orders over $100 OliveOilLovers.com I just did a pre-order (due in from Italy mid-may) of Lannotta DOP Colline Pontine and Lannotta Organic – Lucia was featured on the recent 60 Minutes show about Olive Oil Fraud.
    I have also enjoyed the California Olive Ranch Chef Size 47.3 oz for $13.88 at Wal-Mart, a very good every day oil that does not break the bank. it has a harvest date and best by date, many EVOO only have a best by date, I do not buy anything that does not have at least 1 year BB date and have not had a problems yet. I have been able to find great EVOO for under 70 cents per oz, many coming in at 40 to 50 cents per oz. I have 8 different oils right now and find the Greek oils from Crete to be outstanding.

  • TC 3·25·16

    If you live in West Coast, there’s every reason you should buy Californian olive oil – it’s organic and generally environmentally friendly – since you are close to the growers.

  • Rosemary Melli 3·27·16

    Wonderful article Julia! At the risk of ‘blowing my own horn’, my husband Tony & I have been importing and distributing only the REAL, Extra-Virgin olios (and balsamic vinegars) from Italy for over 12 years under the label Famous Foods. But more importantly, we go to the trouble to EDUCATE our customers, via at seminars, culinary schools, and farmers’ markets; and we go to the trouble to visit our small production producers every year at harvest time, in order to vet the oil we buy from them and insure continued quality.

  • John Carafoli 3·29·16

    Very nice Julia, On a recent trip to Italy I met an American importer who sent me a case of Tera Extra Virgin Olive Oil from Lucca. Italy. Wonderful! I could drink it!

  • [email protected] 3·30·16

    Thank you Julia, for another insightful article about a product we all care so deeply about! There will always be fraud of this sort unless, as consumers, we educate ourselves and not purchase oils that are suspect! I can’t even tell you how many bottles I look at in Italian shops that have no harvest date…I could care less about the best-buy date…I want the harvest date. We were fortunate to find an importer/friend here who works directly with a farm in Umbria…excellent oil that we trust.

  • Christina | Christina's Cucina 8·3·16

    Thank you for this article, it’s becoming increasingly apparent that we, as consumers, need to be more adamant and involved about telling producers, vendors and companies what WE want. I, for one, want real food and ingredients, and absolutely do care that what is labeled on the outside is not a lie about what is inside.

    My cousin in Italy has been raging about this problem for years, now.

  • Julia della Croce 8·3·16

    Since this article was published in the Spring, there has been a campaign underway funded by the Italian government with EU funds, to promote the “Made in Italy” label. It allows anything that is packaged in Italy to be called “Made in Italy,”no matter its origins. In the case of olive oil, this means that oil produced in Greece, Tunisia, Spain, or elsewhere can be labeled “Made in Italy” as long as it is packaged in Italy. As I have said, consumers need only read the back label of extra-virgin olive oils that appear to be Italian to find their true place of origin. They will find that even well known “Italian” name brands will indicate (GR Greece) ES (Spain),TU (Tunisia), and so on, in the fine print, indicating their true place of origin. The campaign reflects the interests of large corporations over those of small producers who struggle to find a place for their genuine products in the marketplace. One would hope that the Italian government would instead get behind the small businesses that need help, and promote the craftsmanship and quality products the have been the envy of the world. Yes, this is happening in Italy, and it is very sad.

Post a Reply to John Carafoli Cancel Reply