Making extra-virgin olive oil (the best of the olive oils) is a time intensive and expensive process. For millennia, growers have monitored olives, waiting for the precise moment of invaiatura when the succulent drupe turns from green to black. Only then are olives harvested by hand and pressed for oil.
The time intensive and expensive process was made financially attractive in 2004, when the FDA announced that olive oil reduced the risk of coronary heart disease. In the United States, the attribute was a financial boon to the industry; the American market continues to grow by ten percent each year and is worth some $1.5 billion.
The expense of production paired with an increase in demand has led to fakes, corruption and scandal in the olive oil industry.
In the August 13th edition of the New Yorker, Tom Mueller explains that some unscrupulous companies have circumvented costs associated with production by replacing olive oil with other, less expensive oils. As he writes in “Slippery Business, The Trade in Adulterated Olive Oil,” fraud rings replaced olive oil with Turkish hazelnut oil and Argentinean sunflower-seed oil in order to increase profits. Some oil labeled extra-virgin was replaced with lampante (Italian for lamp oil), a low-quality product made from spoiled olives that have fallen from trees and cannot legally be sold as food. Others used industrial chlorophyll to make soy oil the color of olive oil and flavored it with beta-carotene. The trickster companies and a handful of producers bribed officials and made sure that they were an integral part of the very systems that regulate olive oil. Of the 787 olive oil producers investigated by the Italian government, 205 were found guilty of false labeling, adulteration or other infractions.
According to a recent NPR story on the same subject, the FDA does not routinely test imported oil for adulteration and so oils that claim Italian descent or that read “Extra Virgin” may very well be riddled with hazelnut or sunflower seed oil.
With such scandals, Americans may find that an uber-reliance on labels is neither informative nor healthy. With so much distance between the public and the source of food, labels have provided a sense of communication between growers and eaters and label information has been embedded into food choices and experiences. When the FDA says olive oil is good for our hearts we are encouraged to buy it. When the bottle reads Italy, we conjure the Tuscan breeze wafting over those olives. We trust that someone, somewhere has verified that “Italian Olive Oil” is just that.
Corrupted and misused labels disrupt a culture’s way of communicating about food safety and food knowledge. Not only is it hard to trust what you read, it’s hard to trust what you taste.
And as long as we rely on distant people and places to grow our food, we will rely on labels. But much like buying locally grown food, using labels that are made closer to home might prove a better way of knowing our food.
Rather than trust labels from Italy, the FDA or USDA, Rocky Mountain residents can look thousands of miles closer to California, where the California Olive Oil Council (COOC) began a labeling program in 1992. The program is an effort to ensure the quality and source of extra virgin olive oils grown in the state. Under the COOC seal program, California producers using the “extra-virgin” designation must provide a legal affidavit proving that the olives are grown in their California orchards and that the olive oil was extracted without chemicals or excessive heat. The oil is then put through rigorous taste tasting and an independent lab does a chemical analysis on the oil to verify that it has fewer fatty acids (a marker of decomposition). This acid content must be lower than similarly produced international oils, meaning that the COOC standards are more stringent than the more common international standard.
Initially, the program was voluntary but five years ago, certification became mandatory if a grower wanted to sell oil as “California, extra-virgin.”
If the oil passes muster, growers are provided with a seal that dates the year it met requirements. (Producers must apply for certification each year.) According to Patty Darragh, Executive Director of the COOC, 85 percent of California’s virgin olive oil producers are now members of the organization.
Many participate because the USDA has no current standards for olive oil production. (The USDA last defined qualities necessary for olive oil in 1948). According to Darragh, outdated regulations make it easier for corrupt companies to send adulterated olive oil to the United States. The COOC petitioned the USDA to update the regulations in 2004, but they are still awaiting a decision. Until then, the COOC recommends that buyers look for the California seal to verify that virgin olive oil is just that.
Even so, it might be hard to convince a skeptic. Although the COOC has strict standards, the Italian government also had specific rules that were easily evaded through intrigue, lies and bribes. While the affidavit that the California Olive Oil Council requires is a legally binding document, it would be possible for a corrupt company or grower to fill out the required forms with misinformation. Such fraud could be difficult to track in California since the COOC and other regulatory agencies have no farm visitation or monitoring program in place to ensure that growers are telling them the truth about the oil’s origin.
Yet, the definitive difference between the California and Italian labeling and oil production system is that Italy has focused on supporting large producers and corporations to increase the quantity of production rather than the quality. In California, the labeling program supports producers who tend to have small operations and make smaller batches of olive oil that would prove easier to trace if the need arose. As Darragh said, the industry is also still small enough that people visit each other’s orchards. They are aware of each other’s practices because of a distinct, involved community.
Even so, Darragh acknowledges that the California olive oil business is a growing industry. And there is a lot of money to be made. Many olive orchards are paired with expensive wineries, echoing the ultimate Italian-inspired experience. Olive oil lovers can only hope that the greed plaguing the Italian system won’t taint the California label as well.
Each week in the NewWest.Net “Spade & Spoon” section, writer Kisha Lewellyn Schlegel discusses the localization of the food system in the Rocky Mountain West by profiling organizations and individuals who are attending to the issues and possibilities of eating closer to home. Bookmark Spade & Spoon at www.newwest.net/spadeandspoon.