Dubious olive oil flooding the market

Hear the news that there is corruption in the oil industry and most well-read consumers would assume that the story relates to the “Black Gold” that is at the heart of most of the world’s industries and the source of political and environmental problems the world over. However, according to a new book, the world of olive oil is also beset by problems of corruption, smuggling and even poisoning attempts.

In his book “ Extra Virginity: The Sublime And Scandalous World of Olive Oil”, author Tom Mueller has explored the world of the lucrative olive oil industry, pointing out the truth that wherever there is money to be made some of those involved will turn to criminal acts in order to get one over on their competitors.

In the summer of 2011, Spanish police in the region of Murcia arrested one thief who is thought to have stolen over a million of litres of olive oil which he and his gang then shipped to Italy, where the product is in great demand. In fact, olive oil is so valuable in Italy that lorry drivers have been held up at gunpoint for their precious cargo and gangs of criminals have broken into bottling plants in the middle of the night to steal millions of pounds worth of the in-demand product.

Corruption in the olive groves is far from a modern phenomenon, however. Tablets dating from over 2,000 years ago have been found in Syria detailing the activities of a group of men who were responsible for ensuring the quality and purity of any olive oil sold at the local markets.

One expert told Mueller that only 2% of the olive oil labelled as “virgin” in shops around the world would actually pass the rigorous industry standards; these include making the oil with the best olives when they are almost over-ripe and only extracting the oil by hand, without the assistance of any technology.

With such strict controls and such a labour-intensive production method, any “virgin” olive oil which is priced at anything less than £6 or £7 is far too cheap to be genuine. Companies who care about their product enough to package it in dark glass bottles, to protect the contents from sunlight, have probably also taken more care over the production methods too.

Of course, it is almost impossible for consumers to be sure they are buying the real thing. Unscrupulous producers will often label other types of oil as “virgin olive oil” or dilute the real thing with other products, including lamp-oil which has a high acid content and is thought to be damaging to the health if consumed in large quantities.

Even those in the know can be fooled by olive oil fraudsters. Food giant Nestle, which makes the Buitoni and Bertolli brands of olive oil, once bought a large shipment of Turkish nut oil which was fraudulently labelled as the genuine article. In their factories it was mixed with real virgin olive oil and sold to customers around the world.