A massive new olive oil investigation in Italy may signal a renewed political will among Italian authorities to crack down on olive oil fraud, and to defend honest producers, in Italy and elsewhere, from unfair competition - not to mention defending consumers worldwide from faux extra virgins.
photo by Francesca Mueller
Between May and June 2012, four executives of the Azienda Olearia Valpesana, one of the biggest oil traders in Italy, including its president Francesco Fusi and the head of the chemical analysis laboratory Davide Passerini, were arrested on charges including fraud and forming a criminal network. Investigators impounded almost 8,000 tons of the company’s oil as physical evidence. In the company lab, agents of the Guardia di Finanza found notebooks with hand-written annotations explaining how to mix oils of various qualities and origins, including lampante oil and oil from Spain and Tunisia, to produce oils apparently extra virgin and entirely Italian. In addition, they found numerous sales contracts for Spanish extra virgin oil on which, alongside its officially-declared characteristics, different chemical characteristics had been added by hand: alkyl esters, peroxides and free fatty acidity far inferior to EU requirements for extra virgin olive oil, which investigators say indicate the real chemical nature of the oil. (Details, in Italian, in a Guardia di Finanza report here.)
photo by Paul Vossen
Using phone and wire taps, detailed analysis of the flows of olive oil through Italian customs, and other techniques, investigators assembled a picture of what they call “a sophisticated mechanism of fraud,” by which “extra virgin” oils were assembled using inferior oils, including deodorized olive oil. A document of the Guardia di Finanza notes that some of Italy’s leading olive oil companies are clients of the Azienda Olearia Valpesana, and observes that “the prosecuting district attorney does not exclude the possibility that the investigation will spread to involve numerous [other] companies in the [olive oil] business, both national and foreign.” In fact, investigators have suggested that the real amount of olive oil involved in the scandal is actually more like 4 times the 8,000 tons currently mentioned in official reports. A veritable sea of dubious oil, that was destined to be sold as EVOO.
The Azienda Olearia Valpesana maintains its innocence. The company observes that subsequent tests performed on the oil in question by world-class oil chemists, which the company hired as consultants, have demonstrated that it does, in fact, meet EU norms. Whatever testing ultimately shows, it seems unlikely to explain the apparent double notation system found by the investigators. And it raises a more fundamental question: are EU norms, formulated in part by chemists working for big oil companies, sufficient to guarantee the quality of the olive oil that we eat?
On the bright side, however, this massive, meticulous and carefully coordinated investigation by the Guardia di Finanza, the Agriculture ministry's fraud-repression office (ICQRF), the anti-fraud team of the Italian Customs service, and other authorities, as well as the incisive steps taken against Azienda Olearia Valpesana (including the naming of the company, a rarity in recent years), suggests a new determination by Italian authorities to take action against olive oil fraud in Italy – in defense of the vast majority of Italian producers, silent, honest and committed, who make some of the best olive oils on the planet.
(For more information and insights, see Alberto Grimelli's English-language report in Teatro Naturale, and the Italian version as well. Full details in (Italian language) press releases by the Guardia di Finanza and Customs service.)