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From the California Olive Oil Council
From the California Olive Oil Council

Labeling Trust: Lessons From Olive Oil Scandal

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

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  1. There are so many potentially explosive issues lying just below the surface in this story that I can almost hear the collective intake of breath by a majority in this industry. I recently tested over twenty “extra virgin” olive oils from a variety of locations across the country and only four of the twenty were actually Extra Virgin by IOOC standards, (International Olive Oil Council); standards, I might add, that are set by the industry and are so incredibly low as to require goggles and fins to get under.The trade association responsible for setting standards in the USA, the NAOOA (North American Olive Oil Association) has omitted from their test the organoleptic or taste test required by the IOOC for all extra virgin olive oils to be certified as such. In general, the industry standards are a bad joke. The twenty something oils we had tested run the gamut from 80% soy bean oil died green and 20% olive oil to rancid or defective olive oil mixed with some form of refined olive oil. One of the oils that scored the absolute lowest is labeled “Organic” and is a top seller in one of the largest chain stores in the US. There is so much more that should be revealed but government agents candidly admit that they are so overworked and understaffed that this issue is simply not even
    near the bottom of the list. Two of the largest counterfeiters in the US continue to produce and pack adulterated oil in the Los Angeles area. Both companies have criminal histories. Jack Gagglio of the now bankrupt A&J Cheese company continues to operate from the offices of Cochella Valley Edibles and another cheese company out of Las Vegas. Emillio Visconte form Ital Cal and Ital Vegas continues to pump out the refined seed oil purchased from Cargill in tankers and then relabled and packed in Los Angeles with a tiny bit of defective Argentine olive oil and shipped out to wholesale distributors and institutional chains like Sysco and Restaurant Depot. This product is virtually eveywhere in the US. It is difficult to find authentic extra virgin olive oil in a restaurant in Los Angeles. I am not exaggerating. The market is awash in faux olive oil to the point that most legitimate sellers have given up trying to sell the real thing through traditional channels.

  2. Gee — I wonder what Rachel Ray uses? 🙂

    Michael, thanks for the additional information. So, unless we squeeze the olives ourselves there is no way of knowing what’s on our dinner table. And the legitimate, good guys can’t compete. That’s the pits…olive pits.

    China poisons our pets, now Italian transplants (I’m assuming Gagglio is one) poisons our veins. And, the drug companies happily stand at the ready to combat the cholesterol build up.

    We need to stop being victims and become victors (Joel Osteen’s words).

    Seems to me we’re going to all have to switch to Paula Deen’s way of thinking — butter, and more butter. Savannah here I come.

  3. This is exactly why we buy all of our Olive Oil from the Temecula Olive Oil Company in Southern California. They are the growers and they let you taste the oil before you buy it. It’s the best we have had.They give quite an education on these very issues and tell you to make sure you know who you are dealing with. I figure they are reputable since the owner does seminars for the Culinary Institue of America.

  4. I use olive oil in my soapmaking. I am appaled how easy it is to adulterate olive oil. It is sad that we can no longer go by labels and what they actually say. I will be buying my olive oil from my local California farms.

  5. I too am a soapmaker, ( and for those people who are looking for a great source of olive oil, you might consider Columbus Foods ( The team there is incredible, they’re one of the most knowledgeable massive sellers I’ve found, and they test all of their products.

    I think the smallest quantity they sell is a gallon, but really…it’s not that hard to go through a gallon of olive oil. 🙂

    (I am not connected to Columbus Foods in any capacity other than as a buyer. I’m not shilling for them, but I am saying that in all the years I’ve been buying from them, they’ve never steered me wrong.)