The Great Olive Oil Scam

Italy produces most of the world’s best olive oil, but the label on the bottle often lies about what’s inside.

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Photo: Mark Studio/
Photo: Mark Studio/

In a sun-dappled grove in Puglia, 68-year-old Saverio De Carlo, wearing a flat cap, his eyes keen behind thick glasses, is inspecting his olives, just as he has every morning for over 50 years. The centuries-old trees near the town of Bitritto are being pruned. Planted by Saverio’s ancestors, they stand between almonds, lemons and figs, their fat grey gnarly trunks rising out of a rippling spread of wildflowers.

Here in the heel of Italy, the fruit is picked from October to December. Within hours, it is pressed on stone at the De Carlo mill, the juice separated into water and oil in a centrifuge, and (using no additives, no heat, no refining) transformed into luminous green-gold extra virgin olive oil. It is the gourmet’s friend, prized for its flavour and health-giving properties-and for the images it evokes of bucolic, traditional, Italian family farms like this.

Italy produces most of the world’s highest-quality extra virgin olive oil. Unfortunately most of it fails to meet the recognized standards set by the International Olive Council.

“What you see on supermarket shelves is frode!” says Saverio’s wife, Grazia, 62, as she prepares lunch at their home above the mill. “A scam!”

Puglia is the world’s top region for the production of extra virgin olive oil, which is in great demand around the world. But the De Carlo family and other local farmers who produce the real thing are struggling, unable to compete on volume or price with the flood of inferior, falsely labelled oil.

“People have abandoned their land,” says Grazia. “Skills are being lost. Saverio’s family has had a mill here since 1598, and he refuses to give up. Olives are our history and our passion, so we make sacrifices and we carry on.”

Europe consumes 1.85 million tonnes of olive oil a year. But after a disastrous 2014 olive harvest, extra virgin oil became scarcer than ever in Italy and the production and distribution of mislabelled oil quadrupled to maintain supply, according to Coldiretti, Italy’s largest farming lobby group.

Cheap olive oil from Tunisia, Morocco, Spain and Greece is often simply relabelled as Italian. Such oil may not come from Italian groves but it is at least made from olives. Some counterfeit olive oil has been found to contain everything from canola and hazelnut to soybean oil, colored with chlorophyll.

“Extra virgin” is frequently the cheaper “virgin” oil, bulked up with olive pomace oil (extracted from old olive pulp, using solvents), doctored, deodorized and flavoured with beta-carotene.

Antonio Barile is a national executive at the CIA, the Italian Farmers Confederation. “If you consider Italy produces an average of 400,000 tonnes of extra virgin a year,” he says, “but sells 900,000 to 1 million tonnes of Italian extra virgin, you see the scale of the fraud.”

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Extra virgin olive oil has a specific set of identifiable characteristics.
Photo: Lionel Derimais
Extra virgin olive oil has a specific set of identifiable characteristics.

Italian extra virgin can cost at least €6 a litre to make, yet it can be found in some Italian supermarkets for as little as €3.

“To meet demand at this impossible price,” says Barile, “some of the big corporations mix in low-quality oil. Puglia produces the Chanel No. 5 of oils, but only 15-20 per cent is bottled and sold by independent producers. Aside from what is consumed locally, the rest is taken to factories and used to disguise poorer quality ordinary virgin oil.

“The supermarkets, and above all the corporations, are stupid,” says Barile, “because mass production of extra virgin olive oil is impossible. It is good for health, and people are prepared to spend on health. Selling authentic oil at a fair price would have been a more profitable strategy.”

Is he angry? “Furioso. Because this is the work of very powerful organizations with great influence on government decisions. They change the rules, and the laws.”

There is talk of corruption at the highest level, of the Mafia. Is he ever afraid or intimidated? “I live normally,” he shrugs. “Not wise, perhaps.”

Interpol reports that the Mafia is heavily involved in the trade and uses the easy profits to fund other illegal activities-including human trafficking.

“The Mafia, particularly in the south, owns a lot of agricultural land and has control, or a takes a cut of activity, illegal or legal,” says Italy-based author Tom Mueller, whose book Extra Virginity: the Sublime and Scandalous World of Olive Oil shines a light on deceptive practices.

A series of raids on Italian factories in recent years by national and local authorities, such as the District Anti-Mafia Directorate of Bari, have seized or blocked the sale of thousands of tonnes of mislabelled oil.

“Luckily, Italy is at the vanguard of investigative and scientific technology to tell the good from the bad,” says Mueller.

The authorities use wire-tapping and undercover surveillance, yet catching the culprits more often involves sober tasting sessions than dramatic busts. Extra virgin has a set of characteristics codified by the International Olive Council, some chemical, others organoleptic (relating to taste and aroma). For instance, to qualify as “extra virgin” the oil must have a “free acidity” of not more than 0.8 per 100 grams of oleic acid.

Inferior oil, says Mueller, can be doctored to pass the chemical test: “However the taste tests, involving panels of eight trained testers, are extraordinarily objective and very robust statistically. If just one of 17 agreed taste flaws is present, it’s not extra virgin.”

The most recent scandal was revealed after analysis conducted by the chemical laboratory of the Customs and Monopolies Agency in Rome for the consumer magazine Il Test-Salvagente. This found fault with nine out of 20 popular supermarket brands in May 2015.

Under instruction by the Turin prosecutor, Raffaele Guariniello, the analysis was repeated by the Anti-adulteration and Health Unit of the Caribinieri. This found that certain olive oils sold by Carapelli, Bertolli, Sasso, Primadonna and Coricelli were not “extra virgin” as labelled.

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Italian police discover a counterfeit olive oil operation.
Photo: Corpo Forestale Dello Stato
Italian police discover a counterfeit olive oil operation.

In June this year, the Italian Competition Authority (Autorità Garante della Concorrenza e del Mercado) imposed fines totalling nearly €1 million on these five brands for “a misleading commercial practice”.

It declared that the brands misled consumers by claiming “extra virgin” status-both on their labels and in their advertising-when in fact they qualified only for the lower “virgin” grade.

The distribution chain Lidl, owner of Primadonna, was fined €550,000-a figure influenced by the Competition Authority’s finding on 8 June 2016 that “the commercial practice was revealed on 16 June 2015 and is still [at the time of the fine] in place”.

Deoleo, owner of Sasso Classico, Carapelli il Frantoio and Bertolli Gentile, was fined €300,000 for products that were finally removed from supermarket shelves in May. Pietro Coricelli was fined €100,000 and withdrew its olive oil in question from sale last December.

All the companies fined have denied wrongdoing, and disputed the reliability of the panel tests. Their arguments were rejected by the Competition Authority regulators.

The companies have the right to appeal to the Regional Administrative Court of Lazio within 60 days of the judgment-and can also make an “extraordinary” appeal to the Italian President within 120 days.

Across Europe, new scientific approaches to determine the purity of olive oil are being applied. There’s an innovative, super-fast test using near-infrared spectroscopy devised by food scientist Christian Gertz, and a portable electronic nose for sniffing out obvious fakes created by a research team from the University of Extremadura in Spain.

Transport documents, cash receipts and instructions on doctoring oil seized during raids this March on factories of the Tuscan Extra Virgin Olive Oil Consortium suggested the “Tuscan” oil was in fact mainly from Greece and Puglia, however it was thanks to new advances in DNA analysis that the authorities were able to prove this conclusively.

Some 47 people were subsequently investigated for commercial fraud and counterfeiting.

Getting away with sticking an Italian label on foreign oil is about to become even harder: Italy’s Polygraphic Institute and State Mint has created a smart label with numbered seal and QR code linked to information on origin and supply chain which aims to deal, in the CIA’s words, a “lethal blow” to fraudsters.

Researchers at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich have come up with an invisible marker: microscopic magnetic DNA nano-particles carrying information on the oil’s provenance and the supply chain. While undetectable when dropped into a bottle of oil, a sample of particles could nevertheless be easily fished out with a magnet to check authenticity.

The Italian government, meanwhile, has announced plans to increase sanctions, particularly against repeat offenders. It is also investing €32m in supporting its olive oil growers through its National Olive Sector Plan.

Back in Puglia, Saverio and Grazia De Carlo have their own ideas about what will turn the tide against the fraudsters. New pruning courses to revive lost skills are welcome, but the two best weapons in the fight against fraud, they say, are the younger generation and educated consumers.

Their children arrive for lunch-artichoke, burrata, bacalao (salt cod) and lampascioni (grape hyacinth bulbs) from the olive groves, drenched in home-produced extra virgin olive oil. Francesco, 35, has a diploma in oil tasting, and Marina, 38, studied marketing in Milan. Grazia jokes that oil runs through their veins. As with winemakers, their future depends on a discerning public.

Francesco pours a little oil into a blue glass and demonstrates how to taste it. It’s made from coratina olives, valued for their high content of antioxidants, with anti-ageing and anti-inflammatory properties. It has a bitter, pungent taste-the mark of a top quality extra virgin oil.

“I love my region, my land,” says Francesco. “You have to know that if we need to cut down a tree it’s a problem for my conscience. Every year, if you care for her, the tree provides. There is a sentimental connection.”

Below, in the mill office, the walls are lined with framed awards and shelves laden with medals and trophies, one dedicated to Marina and Francesco “for passion and sacrifice”. Beside a map of the world and prominently displayed is a passage by Einstein that might have been written with the challenges facing Italy’s olive oil producers in mind: “A crisis can be a real blessing to any person, to any nation. For all crises bring progress.”

Facts correct at time of going to press. Additional research: Lorraine Shah.

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