Now imagine a dark underworld of foreign intrigue -- a world where suspicious characters traffic in goods "guaranteed 100 percent pure," and where customs agents stake out exotic ports of call, waiting to seize rusty container ships full of contraband booty.
But this isn't a bad remake of "Scarface." The substance in question? Olive oil, where stories of bribery, raids, seizures and arrests are making headlines all over the world.
Prompted by recent headlines, the University of California at Davis conducted two studies, in 2010 and 2011, in which two separate panels of testers, all of whom were accredited by the Madrid-based International Olive Oil Council (IOOC), tested a total of 186 extra-virgin olive oils according to IOOC standards.
In the 2010 study, 69 percent of imports and 10 percent of California olive oils failed to meet IOOC standards for extra-virgin olive oil. When the second study was conducted in April 2011, it found that 73 percent of the five top-selling, premium Italian extra-virgin olive oils sold in the U.S. had failed both tests, with indications that these oils were "oxidized, of poor quality, and/or adulterated with cheaper refined oils."
To add to the intrigue, of the Californian and Australian olive oils included in the study, not a single one failed both sets of tests. This outcome has led to an outcry from the international olive oil community, which culminated in April 2011 when the NAOO released a report condemning the U.C. Davis study as "flawed" by an "across-the-board bias" against the producers of imported olive oils.
Controversy over olive-oil purity is nothing new
But whether you believe in the credibility of the U.C. Davis study or not, the fact remains that crackdowns on olive oil tampering have been going on in Europe for a number of years. In 2007, a feature written for The New Yorker by Tom Mueller ("A Slippery Business," Aug. 13) documents an instance in 1991 when 10,000 tons of hazelnut and sunflower seed oil were shipped from Turkey to an Italian company to be sold as Italian olive oil. By the late 1990s, Mueller adds, olive oil was the European Union's most adulterated agricultural product.
A 2008 article in the U.K. newspaper The Telegraph ("Italian Police Crack Down on Olive Oil Fraud") relates a similar story of bribery, corruption and fraud, as reporter Malcolm Moore describes a raid -- known somewhat picturesquely as "Operation Golden Oil" -- in which 400 Italian police officers arrested 23 people and confiscated 85 farms. Subsequently, 205 olive oil producers were discovered to be either diluting their supposed "extra virgin" olive oils with lower grade oil, or fraudulently labeling inferior oils as extra virgin.
In order to better regulate the quality of imports, the IOOC regularly upgrades its trade standards for both olives and olive oil. And in a move to better conform to current international industry standards, in October of 2010 the USDA upgraded its own standards for olive oil purity. But apparently this isn't deterring some producers from finding a way to get around these regulations.
Obviously, extra virgin olive oil isn't being diluted by acid rain, a shift in global temperatures, or rampaging agrarian zombies. It's being done by human hands, deliberately. But no one is claiming responsibility. It serves as a reminder that, in the world of international commerce, nothing is sacred -- not even peaceful olive groves in golden, sunny climates.
Further reading for the olive-oil obsessed:
ConsumerSearch.com report on the best olive oils
"Lab tests cast doubt on olive oil's virginity"
Los Angeles Times
P.J. Huffstutter and Kristena Hansen
July 15, 2010
"Most Extra Virgin Olive Oil Bottles Are Actually Cheaper Mix -- Even Rachel Ray's"
July 15, 2010
"Report: Most Imported Extra Virgin Olive Oils Aren't Extra Virgin"
The Olive Oil Times
July 14, 2010
National Public Radio
"Your Olive Oil May Not Be The Virgin It Claims"
July 25, 2010
Ah but the extra virgin is being tampered with on all fronts. Olive,corn,soy,canola,avocado,ricbran,sunflower,palm,coconut, etc oil growers who use agrochems particularly pesticides to grow their particular oil are causing neurological chaos and no one seems to care. The Olive industry in the US,Australia and globally are focused on getting market traction through an evolving, strange system of sensory panels and Olive Oil awards that only enhances that country of origin's Extra Virgins and is accompanied by a bizarre series of laboratory tests designed to "suit" that countries oils. The UC Davis team is as guilty as the IOOC and the Australian Olive industry on that front.
All oils grown with insecticide additives are introducing problems for the human endocrine system. In most countries that export meat, all cattle are tested for residues in fat and rigorously applied withholding periods are enforced when pesticdes and fungicides have been applied to feed crops or ingested for parasite control however edible oils which are fats seem to be exempt.There appears to be no agreed upon acceptable standards or levels in the edible oil industry.Chlorinated hydrocarbon sits in fat as do all the other pesticides and fungicides in common use in horticulture.The neurotoxicity of these "big farm" products are rarely tested with any rigour especially in the US or Spain. The great Spanish Industrial Rapeseed oil scandal was said, by some scientists, to have really been caused by over zealous application of pesticides with resulting acrylamide poisoning. The neurological damage that resulted for victims was and still is tragic.
If the IOOC, UC Davis and the Australian Laboratories tested for pesticide/fungicide residue in the oils the picture would be a very different one for all these countries who are devloping large super groves with high inputs. The best the consumer can do for their brain health is to ask for Certified pesticide free vegetable,olive,ricebran or avocado extra virgin oil with a high polyphenol/antioxidant reading to counter the affects of pesticides and organophosphates in the food and fat chain. A high polyphenol fully organic extra virgin olive oil is still the best fat or oil to fight oxidative stress and that is why it is so highly prized and always has been. The tampering should stop and an international standard that measures and publishes polyphenol/antioxytive levels on the label and certifies the levels of pesticide residue on the label after testing in a Governmant approved laboratory will guarantee the extra virginity of the oil.
To call the oils tested by the UC Davis research team "top selling premium Italian extra-virgins" is a mistake. While the brands tested by Davis panel may indeed be among the top-selling U.S. brands they are hardly premium oils. Indeed, they were all cheap, industrially produced, supermarket oils intended for a mass market of consumers who don't really care about quality. Further, to call them "Italian" is also wrong since most of the imported oils tested are Italian only in their Italian-sounding names. In fact, most are owned by very large multinationals, one in particular, that are famed for slipping through regulations. And to compare these industrial oils to California estate-bottled oils is stacking the deck--and insulting the thousands of hard-working producers of truly premium estate-bottled oils in Italy, Greece, Spain and elsewhere in the Mediterranean.
The "insult" to Extra virgin customers is that insecticides and pesticides are used indiscriminately in most countries that produce oil whether the oil is estate grown, produced by artisans,hand blended,handcrafted and milled by so called "Master Millers".It's all marketing shtick if you are not producing oil naturally as they did before the Supergroves were conceived,and the introduction of the large centrifugal presses that made harvesting and processing quick and efficient but introduced the need for pest and disease irradication on a large scale. The olive fly is a problem for many growers whether "supermarket" growers or not,as are fungal diseases when the olive is "forced" to grow in places that suit property developers selling the Mediterranean dream in the wrong climate..I am interested in your phrase "famed for slipping through regulations" as a New Zealand producer of extra virgin olive oil using no agrochems,growing sustainably with replenishing clean water we are stunned at the lax standards required to certify our oil in Australia and the U.S.in order to take part in so called "prestigious" olive oil awards. All that is required is a free fatty acid test and a peroxide value test.A sensory or organoleptic test is also required but this is highly subjective as it depends on assessing for 12 IOOC faults but most open to interpretation are the terms "fruity and balanced". "Fruitiness" it seems to us will be a culturally nuanced term and 'balance' is also subjective when decided by a panel comprised of one predominant ethnic group.The Australian producers are wishing to alter IOOC standards as their supergroves produce oils that are high in campesterol. A campesterol test is used by the EU to test for adulteration. The EU is clamping down on pesticide use and GM oils so this will prove problematic for exporters into not out of the EU. If a polyphenol/antioxidant rating was used on the label with the accompanying tests it would show the shelflife of the oil,the style of the oil and along with a pesticide residue reading the health of the oil whether produced by artisan blenders on single estates or not. You can't make bad oil out of good fresh pesticide free fruit that is processed on time just as you can't make good oil out of bad fruit no matter how skilled the blender is or whether it is single estate or not. The polyphenol and pesticide tests are not as expensive as training an Extra Virgin Olive oil policing unit in every country that imports so called Extra virgin Olive oil no matter what the country of origin.
According to the North American Olive Oil Association (NAOO), 99 percent of all olive oil sold in the U.S. is imported -- which means that olive oil is a big commodity in the global economy. And as production has increased, so have the number of stories alleging that some olive oil producers, in order to cut costs, are diluting extra-virgin olive oil with inferior oils and trying to pass them off as the real thing.