Thursday, May 17, 2012
The Scandalous World of Olive Oil by Tom Mueller
Everyone in the olive oil business in California, and in America, knows a fraud story, because everyone knows a fraudster. The United States, whose oil consumption is third in the world and is growing at 10 percent annually, a market worthy over $1.5 billion and climbing, has long had the loosest laws on earth concerning olive oil purity, and the new USDA standards passed in October 2010, which mirror the lax regulations of the International Olive Council (UN), remain voluntary, with no provision for enforcement. Thus, the United States of America is an olive criminal’s dream.
A recent survey of supermarket extra virgins performed by the UC Davis Olive Center, in cooperation with the Australian Oils Research Laboratory, revealed that 69 percent of oils tested had taste flaws such as rancid, fusty, and musty, which meant they weren’t extra virgins at all and had been mislabeled. Such cases of “legal fraud” are common in American supermarket oils, as they are in many parts of the world: similar findings were reached by Andreas Marz in Germany, by CHOICE magazine in Australia, by the regional government in Andalucia. Paul Vossen, a University of California oil specialist, who beginning in 1997 trained and led America’s first IOC recognized tasting panel, said “We’ve pulled olive oils off the shelf and I would say very seldom do we ever find on that passes as extra virgin.” The same is often true at gourmet retailers and websites.
[ “A low incidence of cardiovascular disease, dementia, and certain kinds of cancer are among the central benefits attributed to the Mediterranean diet. Since the 1950s, people have accepted that olive oil, the main source of fat in this diet, is the keystone of this health dietary regime. Some of olive oil’s positive effects stem from its monounsaturated fat profile – at least its not butter or pork fat – but, more and more, medical research suggests that the polyphenols and other micro-nutrients , which constitute a scant 2 percent of its volume but are only present even to that degree in fresh, genuinely ‘extra virgin’ , are the source of olive oil’s health benefits. The concentration of beneficial micro-nutrients varies widely among oils, depending on which of the 700 kinds of olives are used, where they are grown, how much water the trees receive, the ripeness of the fruit at harvest, and the milling and extraction methods used. “Extra Virgin” refers to the coming together of all these variables in a rich soup of micronutrients that are completely absent in refined oils. The price for a genuine bottle of extra virgin is approximately $18 per 500ml. ]
But, “Price is by no means and indicator of quality,” Vossen said. “The high-ticket items can be equally bad.”
In the wholesale market, a lot of oil is adulterated outright with cheap vegetable oils. It is rare to find authentic extra virgin in a restaurant in America, even in fine restaurants that ought to know better. It is nearly impossible in some localities, such as southern California, where large-scale counterfeiters pump out blends of low-grade olive oil and soybean oil dyed bright green and sell it to their fences, the big-name ‘legitimate wholesalers’ such as Unilever, Caparelli and Sysco.
Much of the fake olive oil sold in America is imported. In 2006, in a rare intervention by authorities, federal marshals seized about 61,000 liters of what was supposedly extra virgin olive oil and 26,000 liters of olive pumice oil from a New Jersey warehouse. The shipment was all soybean oil. In 1997 federal marshals had seized a similar shipment from the same company which turned out to be mostly sunflower seed oil. The companies founder had pleaded guilty in 1988 to conspiring to import feta cheese contaminated with benzene hexachloride.
Estimates are that at least 50% of the olive oil sold in America is fraudulent, with particularly acute problems in the food service industry. “In America, people can pretty much put whatever they want in the container,” says Leonardo Colavita(the son of the man upon whom Marlin Brando's character in "The Godfather" was based). “So long as the product isn’t toxic, you can sell it however you like. If you put seed oil inside extra virgin, you don’t poison anyone so it’s the consumer’s choice whether to buy it or not. If you bought yourself some extra virgin that turns out to be lampante - [‘lamp oil’ the lowest grade which has to be chemically refined before it can be sold as food] - that’s your tough shit.”
The FDA considers olive oil adulteration a low priority. Martin Stutsman says his agency is hesitant to commit its extremely limited resources to fighting olive oil adulteration because he thinks it doesn’t represent a serious public health hazard. True, olive oil mixed with cheaper vegetable oils doesn’t compare in danger or virulence to anthrax, botulism or salmonella. Customers just miss out on health benefits they thought they were getting and paying for yet Italian investigators have found hydrocarbon residues, pesticides and other contaminants in fake olive oils, and pomace oil, a common adulterant, sometimes contains mineral oil as well as PAHs, proven carcinogens that damage DNA and the immune system. Then there’s the 1981 case of toxic oil syndrome in Spain, when rapeseed oil adulterated with an industrial additive, sold as olive oil, killed eight hundred people and seriously injured thousands more. Olive oil imported in flexi-bag containers in 2008 was found to be contaminated with naphthalene, a pesticide commonly used to fumigate cargo ships.
In fact, the FDA is itself the victim of a generalized bias against government regulation and an unfounded faith in laissez-faire economics. A November 2007 report on an internal review by the FDA’s own Subcommittee on Science and Technology stated that
The FDA cannot sufficiently monitor either the tremendous volume of products manufactured domestically or the exponential growth of imported products. During the past 35 years, the decrease in FDA funding for the inspection of our food supply has forced FDA to impose a 78 percent reduction in food inspections. FDA estimates that, at most, it inspects food manufacturers once every ten years, and cosmetic manufacturers even less frequently. The Agency conducts no inspections of retail food establishment or of food-producing farms. The FDA does not have the capacity to ensure the safety of food for the nation, its inability to keep up with scientific advances means that American lives are at risk.
There are signs that this risk is being addressed. In late 2010 Congress passed new food safety bills that aimed to expand the FDA’s power to inspect and recall tainted foods. Whether these aims will be funded in the next budget is another question. There may be some help on the way from the private sector. In August 2010 , responding to the UC Davis study that reported widespread mislabeling in the extra virgin grade, the Orange County law firm of Callahan &Blaine filed a class action complaint against manufacturers and distributors alleging fraud, negligent misrepresentation, false advertising, breach of warranty, unjust enrichment and of ‘misleading and defrauding California consumers for years.”
Callahan & Blaine dropped their suit but some say that, at least in Los Angeles, though still blending up bad oil, “the bad guys are sleeping with one eye open.”