Oil bust

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.)

Comments

Huge news! As a Certified

Huge news! As a Certified Organic grower in CA, I know there is a finite amount of oil that can be produced in the world because there are not that many growing regions! Certainly this will dramatically affect the real Extra Vigins price-wise, as demands for authenticity grow. The people committing fraud have been doing so because demand already exceeded availability & quality is so expensive. When it was altered, everyone was happy; ignorance can be bliss, right?!

TOM: i agree with everything

TOM: i agree with everything you are saying! i'll be in Italy for 4 weeks this autumn & hoping to connect with you--need to get you some of my own CCOF oils and my cookbook--not sure where to send them--email me please!
looking forward, theo

Unfortunately, "Consumer

Unfortunately, "Consumer Reports" only tasted the big food brands distributed at big box stores. Food distributors are one reason the food system in our country is so poor. If consumers would use the Internet to seek the real growers & support real family businesses that cannot afford to pay astronomical distributor fees to reach the public, we would all be better off! There is no better expert than one's own research.

Actually it is very fortunate

Actually it is very fortunate that the Sept. Consumer Report tasted the big brands to begin the general education process...This is just the beginning of a long process. I was more concerned that there were not more experts on the tasting panel.  These stores are where the great masses of people shop and begin their "food education" without feeling overwhelmed. Whole Foods and Trader Joe's were also in that mix for the more educated upscale buyer.
It is a giant step in the right direction for this great struggling CA. industry to even make the front page of CR.... Much of the California olive oil industry is struggling partly because of a cultivated marketing "upscale" botique tone to this budding industry. Top down and bottom up is the best path to educate consumers. CR is top down. This all still makes the climb very steep for farmers and people surviving this crazy economy with food prices out the ceiling.  Like wine...it will also take time for the average shopper to begin to understand this new labeling, the unique language and terminology, harvest dates, color, etc.  The best part is the shot across the bow of the inferior foreign olive oil that is dumped on America.  Help help Mr. Bill.

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