So you just shelled out $40 for that authentic Mediterranean cold pressed extra virgin olive oil, but what did you really just buy? Olive oil fraud goes back to ancient days. In fact, we know it was so rampant in ancient days from cuneiform tablets discovered at Ebla, that the Sumerians had a royally appointed olive oil fraud brigade.
But let’s start with a little history. The olive tree is native to the Mediterranean basin and wild olives were collected by Neolithic peoples as early as the 8th millennium BC. It is not clear when and where olive trees were first domesticated, but what is clear is that olives were being pressed for their oil by 6000 BC. The oldest olive oil found, still, in its oil state, has been dated to 3500 BC.
This ancient food, though, has a long history of being adulterated and the people doing the adulterating today have never been busier or richer. The key to their success is the confusion, snobbery, and ignorance that shroud this ancient food.
One of the keys to this fraud is American’s obsession with “Italian” olive oil. One of the big players in this game is the Bertolli’s, who have never actually owned an olive tree, despite the bucolic Tuscan scenes depicted on their labels. They are bankers and traders who got rich because of an incomprehensible twist in European law that, until 2001, allowed any olive oil bottled in Italy to be sold as “Italian olive oil”, which, for some reason is what we American’s will pay the most for. In fact, though, even the most seemingly Italian oils now are almost 80% Spanish, North African, and Middle Eastern. However, it is still sold in bottles with “Lucca” and “Passione Italiana” on the label. Today, Italy sells three times as much oil as it actually produces.
More importantly though – for real food lovers and olive farmers – Bertolli and its supermarket rivals corrupted the meaning of extra virgin, a controlled definition of high-quality oil since 1960. Where real, high-quality olive oil is peppery to the point that it will bite you at the back of the throat, and has vivid and diverse flavors, the big names of olive oil decided to corrupt this and instead sold lower quality oils to the American public using terms such as “Gentle,” “smooth,” and “not peppery on the throat.” Thus selling the lie to American’s that this is what true high-quality olive oil should be when it’s not.
So Bertolli and the other brands came to need low-quality oils in order to produce an expensive one. This suited them, naturally, because lower quality oil costs less and they could then sell it for a higher price. It also suited the fraudsters, who, for millennia, have been passing off oil from all sorts of plants as that of olives. Just some of the adulterants you may find in your cold pressed extra virgin olive oil are deodorized and cleaned seed oil or even oil chemically extracted from the stones and twigs of olives. Both of these produce a bland oil, which is exactly the type of olive oil the big companies have been marketing as high end.
Today it has become almost impossible for the processors to tell when they’re being sold fake oil and, as one sadly says, even harder for them to sell good oil for a reasonable price: “When a customer tries a robust oil, they say, ‘Oh no, this is a bad oil!’ He’s become used to the flat taste of the deodorato.” As a result, 70% of cheaper extra virgin oil sold is a fraud, enriching the big guys.
It is an appalling mess, which experts see largely in terms of honest, hard-working farmers versus slippery businessmen. In interviews, there are prime examples of both. But you could tell the same story of almost any artisan’s product we put in our mouths today, from bacon to cheddar cheese or smoked salmon. Industrial production techniques and the supermarket’s tendency to strip out quality in order to give “value” will debase any foodstuff once it becomes popular to the point where the producer has to abuse his animals, sin against tradition, or commit fraud in order to stay afloat.
It is a depressing story without any obvious remedy. Certain TV shows have awakened American’s palate to some extent, but most of the American public still goes for the cheapest or “best value.” Ignoring the true joys of a truly artisanal product.