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Published: Tuesday, 3/6/2012

Demand for extra-virgin olive oil drums up fakes

BY DAN NEMAN
BLADE FOOD EDITOR

The time may soon come when you’re walking down the street in New York and a shady guy approaches you.

“Hey, man,” he says, carefully looking around for law enforcement officials. “Want any olive oil? I’ve got the good stuff. Extra-virgin all the way, baby.”

You don’t want to encourage his obviously criminal enterprise, yet you are intrigued: “How much?” you ask.

“Just 5 bucks for a quart. It fell off the back of an olive truck, you know what I mean?”

Indeed you do, because you did not fall off a turnip truck. So you thank him politely and continue on your way — possibly to a fancy gourmet emporium where a mere two cups of extra-virgin Italian olive oil can set you back $48.

And even then you might not be getting extra-virgin Italian olive oil.

It’s the dirty little secret of the gourmet food world: Much of the extra-virgin Italian oil sold in the United States is not extra-virgin, a surprisingly large amount of it is not Italian, and sometimes it isn’t even olive oil.

Admittedly, this information is not exactly new: The revelations received some minor attention a couple of years ago. But according to a recent report, the situation has not improved.

Fraud has many causes, most of them involving a personal philosophy skewed more toward greed than ethics. But even if more people were more interested in giving their customers what they are paying for, there would still be a problem — the worldwide demand for extra-virgin olive oil from Italy far exceeds the supply. For that matter, the demand for it in Italy alone may exceed the supply.

Extra-virgin olive oil is a specific designation; it refers to oil that contains less than 0.8 percent free acidity. As a result, it is widely considered to have the best and fruitiest flavor and is usually used in dressings or to drizzle over finished foods. It can be quite expensive and budget-minded chefs generally argue against using it as a cooking oil.

But the demand for it is huge, and it makes up only one-tenth of all available olive oil. It is a matter of science — extra-virgin oil can only come from the first pressing of the olives, which extracts oil from the point farthest away from the pit. Subsequent pressings produce more oil, but the quality is not as high.

So some olive oil producers whose scruples are less lofty than their ambitions have taken to mixing lower quality olive oils into their bottles of extra-virgin. Some organizations that have tested the oil have found that as much as 60-70 percent of all supposedly extra-virgin olive oil sold in this country is, in fact, lower quality olive oil.

And that is assuming it is olive oil at all. In 2007, a Connecticut study determined that some oils labeled extra-virgin contained as much as 90 percent soybean oil.

Even when you get the real thing, there is a strong possibility it did not come, as advertised, from Italy. One company that claims it does not engage in the deception estimates that 90 percent of all extra-virgin olive oil exported from Italy uses olives that were grown in other countries and then shipped to Italy just so they can claim an Italian provenance. One of the biggest companies, Filippo Berio, even acknowledges on its Web site that it uses oils from Greece, Spain, and Tunisia as well as Italy. Yet their labels read “Imported from Italy.”

That’s technically correct, I suppose, if you’re the sort of person who thinks that plausible deniability is the moral equivalent of the absolute truth. But I don’t see it as any different from a guy on a street corner trying to sell you a bottle of fancy Italian extra-virgin snake oil.

Contact Daniel Neman at dneman@theblade.com or 419-724-6155.



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