Across Europe, extra virgin olive oil (evoo) is having an authenticity crisis. Because it commands a high premium (on average a third more than ordinary olive oil), evoo fraud is a tempting cash cow for unscrupulous firms. On Sunday, Croatian local media reported that 4 out of 9 domestic evoo brands fall short of national standards. And in Germany earlier this month, 13 out of 26 olive oil brands from numerous countries failed the extra virgin criteria. (Five samples were highly polluted with mineral oil hydrocarbons, 20 had pesticides, and five had false country-of-origin labels.)
But Italy has the most notorious track record of evoo fraud. The stakes are higher there because Italian evoo generally has greater international prestige than that of other countries, and thus is more expensive. A major crackdown by the Italian police (dubbed “Operation Mamma Mia”) on the evoo industry last week resulted in 2,000 fraudulent tons impounded, worth $14.5 million. Producers in southern Italy were found to be putting false labels on bottles of cheaper Spanish and Greek olive oil, claiming they were Italian evoo.
This is just the latest exposure of the pervasive system of fraud in the lucrative industry. Sampling in 2011 found that four out of five bottles of “Italian” olive oil actually contained low-quality oil from other Mediterranean countries. And last November, the Italian customs agency found that 9 of 20 evoo brands were in fact lower-quality oil; as a result, 7 large domestic evoo firms came under investigation.
Undoubtedly spurring the latest wave of evoo fraud were record-low harvests in Italy and Spain last year. A bacteria outbreak in southern Italy infected more than a million olive trees, hitting producers hard. All told, their outputs halved, sending global olive oil wholesale prices up approximately 20%. (And the fraud extends beyond evoo; last week Italian police seized at least 10,000 kilos of year-old green olives that had been treated with harmful chemical copper sulphate in order to make them look and taste fresh.)
By contrast, although Californian olive oil only accounts for 0.1% of the world market, because it’s so highly regulated — and oftentimes fully automated — the industry there is all but impervious to the fraud rampant in Europe. But it doesn’t yet have the culinary reputation of Italian olive oil, so it may be a long time before Californian evoo gets accepted by upscale consumers. Though, additional evoo fraud scandals in Europe will hasten the process.