A perfect storm is brewing in the olive oil industry. Recent crop failures in Italy and Spain, soaring prices, and organized crime are the ingredients of a potentially lethal new twist in an already scandal-ridden business 1.
It is no secret that extra virgin olive oil has been a favorite among thieves to make a quick profit through adulteration. That practice dates back to the ancient Sumerians and was even the subject of an international bestseller in 2012 2. Some argue that it is nearly impossible to find a bottle of pure Italian olive oil any more. Most contain cheaper oils to bulk up volumes and profits 3. With global production of this “liquid gold” off by as much as a million metric tons, the latest twist in this ancient story of fraud is taking an even more troubling turn.
Olive Oil Gangs + Adulteration = Danger
In recent months, prices have nearly doubled due to the worldwide shortage of high quality olive oil. Italian investigators note that organized criminals with international connections are now moving into the business of filling the literal void with adulterated and often dangerous oil substitutes. In some instances, the fakes are harmless, as thieves mix corn, soybean, sunflower, and sesame oils with the real McCoy and pass it off as extra virgin olive oil 4.
Other blends discovered on the market are just plain dangerous. Fraudsters often set up shop under filthy conditions and have no regard for what might find its way into the oil, including physical contaminants such as bits of glass. Criminals are also substituting vegetable oil dyed to look like real olive oil using chlorophyll for color and beta-carotene for taste. Chlorophylls can generate toxic reactive oxygen species, which cause diverse cellular damage, and they are particularly prone to generating free radicals under high light conditions. There have been several reports of unsuspecting users of tainted olive oil suffering from chest pains and difficulty breathing to skin rashes. Still more worry that some of the tainted oils may contain E. coli and salmonella 5.
Leaving It To The Experts
Authorities are warning shoppers to be on the lookout for adulterated olive oil. One surefire sign that not all is well is low pricing. If it seems too good to be true, it probably is either old or adulterated. Beyond that piece of advice, however, most consumers are on their own when it comes to ferreting out counterfeit extra virgin olive oil. Even in Europe, members of the EU still rely on official “tasting panels” to verify the quality of olive oil 6. A study of olive oil sold in the U.S. back in 2012, meanwhile, showed that most Extra Virgin Olive Oil sold commercially did not meet the strict standards required to carry that label 7.
With the latest round of fraud cases turning up across Europe, the U.S., and elsewhere, several organizations are now regularly testing olive oil for adulterants. Among these are RIKILT, a globally respected food-testing laboratory based in the Netherlands, Campden BRI in the UK, the U.S. Pharmacopeial Convention and the FDA, in the U.S., as well as various other government and industry agencies around the globe 8. In every instance, scientists at these organizations rely on a variety of trusted analytical instrumentation, such as PerkinElmer’s SpectrumTwo™ FT-IR with Spectrum® Adulterant Screen software, AxION 2 TOF MS, and LAMBDA UV/Vis/NIR spectrophotometers to help uncover what actually is in that Extra Virgin Olive Oil.
1. Fake Olive oil on the rise, Top Useful Solutions.com.
2. Extra Virginity: The Sublime and Scandalous World of Olive Oil, Google Books.
3. Olive oil food fraud: pressing truths, The Guardian.
4. Food fans are told to prepare for a flood of dangerous counterfeit olive oil, The Independent.
6. Commission Implementing Regulation (EU) No. 1348/2013 amending Regulation (EEC) No. 2568/91 on the characteristics of olive oil and olive-residue oil and on the relevant methods of analysis, FAOLEX - legislative database of FAO Legal Office.
7. Olive Oil's Dark Side, The New Yorker.
8. See, for example, Olive Oil Authenticity Testing Underway in UK, Olive Oil Times.