Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Extra Virgin Oil Fraud and the Small Producer

Pressing the olives at a local frantoio
        As we mentioned in our app, Olive Oil IQ, the best Italian extra virgin olive oil to buy comes directly from small local producers, the coltivatori diretti; or from a local olive mill, the frantoio.  If you can't travel to Italy to buy your oil, look for a specialized food shop in your own country, where you may build a relationship and taste the oils they stock. More and more olive oil boutiques and gourmet food shops are opening up around the world, offering excellent extra virgin oils from both the Mediterranean and the New World.
       Good quality extra virgin olive oil generally does not sell for less than six euros a bottle in Italy, and costs more in countries into which it has been imported. If you see extra virgin olive oil selling too cheaply, it's possible it has been mis-labelled. Even price-conscious consumers in Italy's big cities, who buy olive oil in supermarkets, fall prey to blended or lower quality oil. As the head of UNAPROL, the association of Italian olive oil producers, said in 2011, "The majority of Italians spend more for the engine oil for their cars than for extra virgin olive oil for their tables." 

       High price is no guarantee, though. You need to taste the oil before you buy if you can; if that's not possible, purchase the smallest container available. If it doesn't please you, don't buy it again and notify the vendor of your dis-satisfaction.  Look for another brand, read reviews, try and try again. This is what you would do with wine, isn't it?  

        Recently, there has been a talk in the press about labelling fraud concerning extra virgin olive oil, especially in products marked Made in Italy. (See the Mislabelling and Fraud entry in Olive Oil IQ). There is an ongoing government investigation in Italy, which focuses primarily upon large producers and corporations who have blended Italian olive oil with oil from Spain, Greece, Tunisia and Morocco and labelled their products 100% Italian. As a rule, this kind of fraud is not coming from the small farmers and oil producers, who work so hard to produce the top quality extra virgin olive oil that Italy is famous for; rather, it is on a much larger scale. 

     According to La Repubblica, the Italian newspaper (12/23/2011), this fraud investigation does not concern badly stored or expired product; it is focused instead on huge corporations across Italy and the EU who import enormous quantities of oil in bulk from Mediterranean countries and label it as Italian. The provenance may be on the label, as required by law, but you'll need a magnifying glass to read it. This is financial fraud on a gigantic scale, which is being actively investigated. La Repubblica broke the story and it has now circled the world. Unfortunately, sometimes the story has become less about the investigation of the international agri-mafia and more an indictment of Italian olive oil in general, which is unfair to the small producers.

Olive farmer watching his own new oil come from the press
     As the frantoista (person who operates an olive oil press) near Saragano in Umbria told us, the small local producers must follow the EU and Italian government regulations to the letter when they press and label their oil. Otherwise, word will spread quickly that something is amiss and they will be shut down. Smalltime growers bring their olives to press and remain there watching their crop as the olives move from fruit to juice, eventually pouring into their own containers.

    This is the oil you want to buy.

copyright Sharri Whiting 2012


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