Thursday, January 27, 2011

Am I eating Tunisian olive oil? Is it adulterated?

3. Am I eating Tunisian olive oil?
If you like olive oil, you love Tunisian olive oil — or, at least, you eat lots of it.
What the heck am I talking about (you ask)? You´ve never even seen Tunisian olive oil at your grocery store, let alone tasted it (you say).

Wrong, bucko. Tunisia is the world´s No. 2 olive oil exporter, right after Spain. Much of the olive oil we consume in Canada — whatever the bottle says its country of origin is — probably features a significant amount of Tunisian oil.

Until very recently, the European Union´s complex agribusiness structure allowed any EU country to claim that a bottle of olive olive was made in … oh, say … Italy … if even a dollop of the oil in said bottle was grown in that country. The required local content is now higher, but you still have to read between the lines on the label.

You can have a bottle of olive oil that says “Imported from Italy” or “Made in Italy” or “Packed in Italy” or “Produced in Italy” or “Bottled in Italy” and its actual content may just be a whiff of Tuscany and a whole lot of Tunisia. Even if the bottle says “Grown in Italy” you´re  taking that provenance on faith.
Considering that twice as much “Italian” olive oil is exported as is grown in the country (and also considering that a large amount of the domestic olive oil production stays in Italy to begin with), you understand that the rest of the oil in the bottle has to come from somewhere. If you´re lucky, it comes from Tunisia, which has very good olive oil.

Italy has just come through another of its many olive oil scandals where counterfeit “cold-pressed extra virgin olive oil made in Italy” was found to primarily contain soya and sunflower oil, not even olive oil.

The New York Times last year estimated that only about 5% of Italian-labelled olive oil sold in the U.S. is pure Italian.
Back in 2000, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency tested 100 imported olive oils and found 80 of them were adulterated with vegetable oils other than olive. Even the other 20 probably contained olive oil from a country other than that specified on the label, although CFIA didn´t test for that (I´m not really sure how you would do that test, but there is obviously a way since that kind of testing has been done elsewhere.)

It´s no surprise that the Tunisian olive oil industry has been trying to build a brand name for itself for the past couple of years, since so many people are already eating — and apparently enjoying — their product. But it has been a tough sell. It´s an uphill battle against the cachet of “Made in Italy” despite the scandals.

Just remember that Tunisia´s 56 million olive trees make up about 20% of all the olive trees in the world and Tunisia´s oil generally gets good marks from olive savants for its lightness, texture and taste. So enjoy your Tunisian olive oil, no matter what the bottle says.

No comments: