By Sonya Neufeld,
FRAUD. It’s associated with identity theft and bouncing cheques, but apparently it is also rife in the olive oil industry.
Fake olive oil is an international issue, especially in Italy, the world’s leading importer, consumer and exporter of olive oil.
Australia the largest consumer of olive oil per capita outside the Mediterranean is not immune.
Olive oil is more valuable than other vegetable oils, but is costly and time-consuming to produce. It is also easy to adulterate, or fake.
In February last year US federal officials seized about 61,000 litres of what was supposed to be extra-virgin olive oil and 26,000 litres of a lower-grade oil from a New Jersey warehouse. Some of the oil consisted almost entirely of soybean oil, which costs about one sixth of the price of olive oil.
It was destined for Krinos Foods, which blamed the fraud on its supplier, DMK Global Marketing, which in turn pointed the finger at the Italian bottlers from whom it had bought it. Officials destroyed the oil, but no criminal charges were brought.
A year earlier, the Italian special police broke up a criminal ring and confiscated 100,000 litres of fake olive oil, with a street value of about six million euros ($A8.9million).
The ring was accused of colouring soy and canola oil with industrial chlorophyll, flavouring it with beta-carotene and packaging it as extra virgin olive oil.
Throughout the early 1990s, the owner of olive oil supply company Riolio, Domenico Ribatti, made a large fortune by cutting olive oil with hazelnut and myriad oils.
He supplied the “dirty” oil to some of the largest producers of Italian olive oil, including Nestle, Bertoli and Unilever, who sold it to consumers as olive oil.
In 1997, adulterated olive oil was so prevalent the European Union’s anti-fraud office established an olive-oil taskforce.
In April, Italian Agriculture Minister Paolo De Castro announced its government had investigated 787 producers and found 206 were guilty of adulteration, false labelling, and other violations.
International regulations state that extra virgin olive oil must be obtained only from the olive, the stone fruit picked from trees.
The oil can be extracted using only mechanical or other physical means (by a press or a centrifuge) with no chemicals and in particular thermal conditions, which do not alter it in any way.
It must be free of defects and have acidity of 0.8 per cent or less, while virgin olive oil should have acidity of 2 per cent or less. It cannot contain oils obtained by the use of solvents nor be mixed with oils from other sources.
Australian Olive Association president Paul Miller said a “taste test” could sometimes reveal whether a bottle labelled as extra virgin was what it claimed to be.
“If you get a nice, fruity and fresh taste, then it’s the real thing. If you don’t get any taste, or if it tastes a bit fatty or off, then it’s not.”
It was difficult to determine how much of an issue olive oil fraud was in Australia.
“We’ve done some testing of imported and domestic labelled [extra virgin olive oil], using conventional tests because we know what’s happening overseas.
“But we really don’t know how much of a problem or if it even is one here in Australia because some of those conventional tests cannot always detect refined oil and other things.”
However, thanks to a $385,000 grant from the Federal Government, the Australian Olive Association is cracking down on fraud.
It is implementing an industry code of practice, which will include a new, more advancedolive oil chemistry test in conjunction with the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission.
Mr Miller said the regulations, which will come into place early next year, will involve random testing in the market and will put Australia “up there” with Canada as one of the strictest when it comes to olive oil fraud.
“We’re getting pretty serious about this and the re-structure of the industry will help us police it.
“We want to make sure we’re delivering what we’re saying we’re delivering.”
However, consumers needed to be aware that adulterated oil would not harm them.
“They aren’t selling anything poisonous, rather it’s similar to saying ‘This is a really good bottle of cabernet sauvignon’ when it’s in fact a $2 job.”
Australia’s olive oil industry is relatively small. While the world produces 3 million tonnes, we produce 10,000 tonnes some 0.3 per cent of olive oil supply.
Our biggest export market is the US and increasingly, China.
As for Canberra, its olive oil industry is considered “boutique”.
“Canberra has some quite good oils, but being quite cool, it tends to be at the smaller end of the market,” Mr Miller said. “Nonetheless, they produce quite flavoursome oil, so there’s some interesting stuff happening there.”
Pialligo Estate Wines has been producing olive oil for about seven years. Owner Sally Milner said the winery, which picked about two tonnes of olives this year and produced about 300 litres of oil, sells the product in a “very boutique way”.
“We put it into smaller bottles and pair it with a red wine vinegar that we make, we sell it from the cellar door, and serve it in our restaurant.”
Because the winery didn’t attempt to sell the olive oil retail or wholesale, fraud was not a serious issue for the business.
“But if we ever got into the stage where we were competing in the open market, we would be concerned about it.
“It would also worry us in the sense that people would have bad associations or experiences with olive oil and may not use it again, which would be a real shame.
“Olive oil not only tastes great and enhances the natural flavour of food, it is also very good for you.” Those in the industry will attend the Australian Olive Expo takes at Exhibition Park from October 28-31.
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