“You know the nearer your destination, the more you’re slip slidin’ away…”

by Katie Pizzuto on September 26, 2008

in Distributor,Imports

Whenever I was in the company of an Italian who was very patriotic about his/her homeland’s exports, I used to ask them the following: “Hey, you know where the best Italian olive oil comes from? Spain!” It was a low blow I’ll admit, but despite the fact that many Italians are making amazing olive oil with their own olives, the sad fact is that most don’t—especially the ones lining your local market shelves. In fact, fraud is so prevalent in the olive oil industry that it makes it that much harder for the honest artisan to survive, much less prosper.

It’s not difficult to find a tanker labeled “Greek Olive Oil” pulling into one of Italy’s ports—the Italians import, blend, bottle and export oil all the time. The problem is, tankers like the one that pulled into Barletta a few years ago (which was carrying Greek olive oil according to the ship’s documents) had pumped twenty-two hundred tons of hazelnut oil into its hold when it had docked in Turkey prior to its journey to Italy. That oil somehow “cleared” customs, made it to a refinery and was bottled (sometimes blended with actual olive oil) and sold locally. In fact, over the course of a few months nearly ten thousand tons of Turkish hazelnut oil and Argentine sunflower-seed oil were imported by the same distributor, all identified as Greek olive oil. Once an investigation began, they discovered that this adulterated oil had gone to some of the largest producers of Italian olive oil, like Nestlé, Unilever and Bertolli, who then sold it to consumers as olive oil.

Let’s face it, olive oil is much more valuable than most other vegetable oils. Luckily, for corrupt Italian exporters, it’s also easily doctored! That doctoring is very hard to detect through chemical analysis, so they’ve now got certified tasting panels (created by the UN) to hunt the phonies down, yet, according to some, Italian authorities rarely perform taste tests. (Side note: For the past ten years, Spain has produced more oil than Italy, but much of it is shipped to Italy for packaging and is sold, legally, as Italian oil.)

In 2006, federal marshals seized over sixty thousand liters of what was supposed to be extra-virgin olive oil and twenty-six thousand liters of a lower-grade olive oil from a warehouse in Jersey. Some of the oil, which consisted almost entirely of soybean oil, was destined for a company called Krinos Foods. Krinos blamed the fraud on its supplier, which in turn blamed the Italian bottlers from whom it had bought the oil. The marshals destroyed the oil, but no criminal charges were brought against any of the companies. Thus, the fraud continues, despite the piss-poor efforts of the FDA, so what are we to do? According to Leonardo Colavita: “I say that a criminal ought to make the law, because the criminal knows how to outwit the law.” God, I love Italians.

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

1 Extra Virgin Olive Oil December 4, 2009

The olive oil business is indeed lucrative and uber competitive, which, like many other industries, breeds criminal conduct. What is ridiculous, however, is taking a product as perfect and pure as olive oil, along with its incredible health and taste benefits and taint the industry. We must remember there are many producers of olive oil that not only taste by the rules, live by the rules and share with us a fantastic product.

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