A special branch of the Italian police is trained to detect bad oil; but as in most inspections of most product categories in any country, there are too many products and too few inspectors. Even when fraud is found, producers—many of whom have connections to powerful politicians—are rarely prosecuted. [Source]
EVEN IF IT’S OLIVE OIL, IT MAY NOT BE “EXTRA VIRGIN”
Just because the label says “extra-virgin olive oil” does not mean that’s what’s in the bottle. In fact, it may not even be 100% olive oil. It can be a blend of lower-quality vegetable oils that may include less than 20% olive oil.
The “extra virgin” label has strict IOC (International Olive Council) requirements; namely, that the acidity of the oil is less than 1%. If the acidity is between 1% and 3.3%, the oil is called virgin olive oil; and the higher the acidity, the lower the grade of oil (here are the grades of olive oil). Much olive oil sold as “extra virgin” isn’t.
A 2010 study by U.C. Davis, one of America’s top agricultural universities, found that 69% of the imported “extra virgin” olive oil sold in California supermarkets did not qualify as extra virgin (the results can be extrapolated to the rest of the country). That means your chance of buying real extra virgin is less than 1 in 3. Here’s the full report.
The Executive Summary begins:
While there are many excellent imported and domestic extra virgin olive oils available in California, our findings indicate that the quality level of the largest imported brand names is inconsistent at best, and that most of the top-selling olive oil brands we examined regularly failed to meet international standards for extra virgin olive oil.
Of the five top-selling imported “extra virgin” olive oil brands in the United States, 73% of the samples failed the IOC sensory standards for extra virgin olive oils, analyzed by two separate IOC-accredited sensory [tasting] panels.
The fraud typically comes from supermarket brands, store brands and club store brands that sell in big volume. There is nothing harmful about the olive oil, but it isn’t of the quality of the Italian olive oil you think you’re paying for. If you’re buying it for it’s heart-healthy benefits, you may not be getting them.
In 2010, a class action lawsuit in California targeted 10 major olive oil brands: Bertolli, Carapelli, Colavita, Filippo Berio, Mazola, Mezzetta, Pompeian, Rachael Ray, Safeway Select and Star. It also names 10 major supermarket chains and big box stores that allegedly sold substandard oil as “extra-virgin.” This includes olive oil mixed with cheaper types of oil, lower quality olive oil and olive oil degraded by heat or age.
Artisan oils from smaller brands are typically what they claim to be. They don’t sell in enough volume to interest the fraudsters.