Tracking the olive oil fraudsters

Who's misleading Britain's shoppers?

Vergilia has accompanied me to the three cities I have lived in. The last one was Birmingham, where it arrived in January 2018 in a box.

It was the second international adventure after Chile, although it travelled then more comfortably in my sister's luggage. She brought me the 'golden liquid’ which reminds me of my family and the small village in Andalusia where I grew up and where this olive oil is produced.

But, it was not the ‘melancholy’ that pushed me to enlist Vergilia in the British expedition.

Before Christmas, I was consuming an extra virgin olive oil made of picual olives variety (the same as Vergilia) that I bought at the supermarket. Each morning, while taking my toast with olive oil, I wondered, "is it real extra virgin?"

In 2015 and 2016, the Rural Payment Agency carried out a test of to 131 olive oils sold in the UK. A third of them did not meet the chemical or sensorial parameters. Was my brand among them?

“This information is considered commercial in confidence,” answered the Agency in a Freedom of Information request.

I moved on, and knocked on the European Union's doors, the biggest producer and consumer of olive oil in the world. Some research suggests that the olive oil is the main agricultural fraud within the bloc, and the institution itself considers it as one of the six products most frequently reported in such illicit activities

The Union is, therefore, interested in tackling the fraud and not only in the oil industry. In 2013, after the horse meat crisis, the European Commission created the Food Fraud Network to confront with "possible intentional violations of the food chain law with a cross-border impact".

Would this body record olive oil cases in Europe?

Yes, it does.

Half of the cases registered since the end of 2015 were related to adulterated olive oil, and a third of them to lower quality than the label actually states.

But, this network is "based on trust", which means that the members are encouraged to exchange information, but there is no obligation. So, the data is not a “statistically reliable overview of the situation within the EU,” said the Directorate General for Health and Food Safety (DG SANTE), in charge of the Food Fraud Network, in a Freedom of Information response.

As for the names of the brands involved, they “cannot supply detailed information,” the organisation added, because of “their disclosure could undermine the outcome of ongoing investigations.”

Green gold

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The toughest kind of fraud to detect is deodorisation. Inferior olive oil or other vegetable oils are cleaned to remove unpleasant tastes and then blended with a small proportion of virgin or extra virgin.

Another “contentious” area, says the European Union, is the “objective evaluation of quality parameters of freshness.”

But, why is this product so vulnerable to fraud?

Money,” says Wenceslao Moreda, a researcher in the Grass Institute in Seville.

“It is a product with a high added value,” explains Moreda, who is also a member of the European-funded Oleum project to “tackle all the doubts around the olive oil.”

“So, there is a lot of money involved,” he adds.

The olive oil is rich in antioxidants, oleic acids and vitamins, and its healthy effects help to prevent diseases such as diabetes or cardiovascular illnesses. It also impacts positively on the immune and the digestive systems.

But all those benefits are only found in virgin and extra virgin olive oils; the ones that are olive juice, without chemical modification as the “ordinary” olive oil, and hence, more expensive.

None of the experts interviewed has given an estimative figure to quantify the loss because of fraud. But the investigative journalist Tom Mueller wrote in his book 'Extra Virginity' (2012): 

"An EU investigator told me ‘profits were comparable to cocaine trafficking, with none of the risks’."

“It is happening with all the food products,” the researcher Moreda tells me. “The food fraud is very important. The difference with the olive oil fraud is that there is no health risk.

A joint Europol-Interpol operation to tackle food and drink fraud seized counterfeit products in 2017 valued at 55 million euros. The figure is however 75% lower than the 230 million euros from the previous year.

But not everybody in the industry has the same opinion.

The president of the “Olive oil Exporters and Industry Association” (Asoliva), Rafael Pico, does not “agree with the existence of fraud,” he warns me even before setting up the interview.

99% of the cases are related to the tasting test,” he said by phone, “an analysis which generates judicial insecurity for the companies and the consumers.”

Olive oil is the only agricultural product which requires two tests to determine its quality and commercial category: one chemical and another sensorial, technically called “organoleptic”.

Both are regulated by the International Olive Council, who also determines which laboratories are legally qualified to carry out each test; and both are taken not only to categorise the product, but also to control it.

The first analysis mainly measures the acidity, the level of peroxides, and the ultraviolet absorption. The organoleptic one is a tasting test carried out by a group of between 8 and 12 experts called the Panel Test, which looks for 'defect' in the flavour. They are the last step to determine whether an olive oil is extra virgin, that is, perfect.

And that is what annoys Rafael Pico. 

"There is a problem of harmonization of those subjective criteria used by the Panel Test," he says.

A study carried out by PricewaterhouseCoopers and Asoliva gathered 500 samples which were sent to 15 different official Panels Test. 27.3% of the results gave different sensorial values for the same product. “And there are official studies that rises this variability up to 46%,” the president of Asoliva adds.

Nevertheless, the International Olive Council “reaffirms the validity of the Panel Test for the organoleptic assessment” and has called for “its protection from false reports which helped neither the sector nor the Organisation.”

Asoliva is not campaigning, however, for removing the sensorial test, but for “objectivizing its subjectivity”, Pico explains, through a machine that will reduce the human error.

But while the methodology improves, they propose that a single official laboratory, recognised by the whole EU, analyses the product before putting it on the market and not when the olive oil is in the shops.

"There is no pattern in the organoleptic test," the researcher from Seville, Wenceslao Moreda, says, “because we are dealing with a natural product, which is variable” and changes and deteriorates with the time. 

However, “this does not mean that the Panel Test is useless, but they need better training,” he adds.

And that is one of the purposes of the Oleum project: giving them better resources, as well as developing methods to guarantee the authenticity of olive oil, and to detect treatments and products used to adulterate it.

“The fraud always goes a step forward,” Moreda says, “when we close a door, another one is already opened somewhere else.”

Spanish oil, Italian brands

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Have a try! The olive oil quiz. Ten questions that non-related people with olive oil usually ask meThe adulteration of olive oil is "particularly acute in Italy," wrote Tom Mueller in his book (2012). The 'Made in Italy' label is an “appetizing target for food fraudsters, who earn an estimated 60 billion euro a year.”

Names such as Carapelli, Bertolli, Primadonna, or Santa Sabina have been involved in cases of fraud in the last three years.

The brand I bought before bringing Vergilia with me was… (sorry, dad) Italian.

A quarter of the brands offered in the UK shelves are originally from Italy, although half of the products are retailers’ own brands, according to the information I scraped from six of the main stores.

But the origin of the brand is not necessarily connected to the origin of the oil.

Two thirds of the total olive oil imported is Spanish (66%), and around 18% Italian. However, only one in ten brands in the main retailers' shelves are Spanish.

"The olive oil bottled in the country of consumption damages us, because of the lower prices and the loss of control over the product," the president of Asoliva says. 

“In Italy and Spain, we have 100% of the exports chemical and organoleptic analysed,” he adds, but non-producers countries “only has one set for each tonne analysed.”

The median price per litre of extra virgin according to my study is £9, although the variability is high. The difference between the highest and median price is six time the difference between the median and the lowest price.

What is, then, a reasonable price?

I compared it to my Vergilia, which costs around five euros per litre in a non-fancy can and without travel costs. I buy it directly from the olive mill. Well, my father does.

And I should call him soon.

Vergilia is offering me its last drops while I reach the end of the story. After three months pursuing figures and names of the fraudulent products in the UK, I ended up without them and seeing my oleic partner off.

But the journey has provided me with better resources and information to choose Vergilia’s replacement in the UK. A tough decision, indeed, and it is the melancholy talking this time.

But low-cost airlines' baggage policy is making our relationship hard.


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