A scandal has erupted in Italy. It may have been obvious to some but olive oil is being passed as extra-virgin olive oil by some of Italy’s best know brands. It has only come to light now following an investigation by Raffaele Guariniello.
The olive oil being sold in supermarkets is neither extra-virgin nor Italian, despite the fact that it is marketed and sold as such.
This will not come as a surprise to some who have always questioned how some extra-virgin olive oil is sold at prices as low as three to five euros per litre, when to buy ‘real’ extra virgin olive oil from producers or olive oil presses (frantoi in Italian) it could cost easily up to 10 euros per litre if not more.
Extra-virgin olive oil is made by cold-pressing olives that are freshly picked. On a trip to Tuscany just a few days ago, we could see many, from small producers to families, picking olives from their fields to be turned into extra-virgin olive oil. These are normally pressed within 4 to 8 hours of picking. Extra-virgin olive oil is normally dark green and cloudy because there is no filtration or any addition of chemicals.
What was interesting to us was the pride with which the Tuscans showcased the newly pressed ‘extra-virgin olive oil.’ In the place where we were staying, they greeted us with a bottle of fresh extra-virgin olive oil. We were also offered newly pressed oil in restaurants.
In many shops, in the different villages in Tuscany from San Gimignano to San Casciano in Val di Pesa, from Castellina in Chianti to Greve in Chianti, there were signs in the shop windows to inform customers that the new ‘extra-virgin olive oil’ was available.
One question that immediately came to our mind was why, if the new season extra-virgin olive oil is treated with such pride, have we never seen campaigns to tell consumers that the ‘new’ extra virgin olive oil has arrived in supermarkets.
The reason, it seems to us with the benefit of hindsight, is pretty obvious.
Investigators have found out that in the bottles under investigation, the oil contained chemicals as well as highly acidic olive oil that has been treated and can therefore never be considered as extra-virgin olive oil.
In many cases, the bottlers have bought huge stock of containers of oil that are sold in countries in the Mediterranean and which they then market and sell as ‘Italian’ olive oil.
The brands that are being investigated include Carapelli, Santa Sabina, Bertolli, Coricelli, Sasso, Primadonna and Antica Badia. All these are bottled in Tuscany, Abruzzo and Liguria. Over half of the bottles that were analysed have been declassified to ‘virgin’ olive oil instead of extra-virgin olive oil because they had acidity which was considerably higher than what one can find in extra-virgin olive 0il.
This case of fraud has major implications not only because it is anti-competitive against small producers which focus on quality but also on the health of people buying these products because extra-virgin olive oil is considered to be a healthy product but a ‘fraudulent oil’ does not offer such health benefits.
Next time you are in a supermarket and thinking of picking up a bottle of extra-virgin olive oil look at the price. If it is too low, then it is unlikely to be the real thing. If you can, try to buy your extra-virgin olive oil from small producers or those who can tell you how it was made.
Unfortunately we are living in times when you really need to pay attention to what you buy.