All that Glitters, continued

My recent article, Not All that Glitters is Gold, has attracted many comments, and it’s been fascinating to watch their evolution.  They remind me of the old game of “operator”:  people form a line, and the first person says a phrase into his or her neighbor’s ear.  What comes out the far end frequently bears no relation to what was originally said.  I’d like to address some of the questions raised by commenters, and hopefully, bring the conversation back to what was actually said at the outset, in my article.  In reality, many questions that people have been asking were already answered in the article, and in previous writings on this site.  Other questions have grown out of the comments without referring to the article at all, and have no basis in fact.

Why are you doing this?
As explained in this post from last July, Truth in Olive Oil aims to celebrate great olive oils and call out questionable oils, thereby helping to ensure that consumers get fine oils and that honest producers aren’t undercut by low-grade substitutes.  Part of this initiative is the Truth in Olive Oil testing program.  Relying on my own knowledge from 6 years as an investigative journalist in the olive oil industry, as well as on information from people who work in the olive oil industry and on the sampling and testing of oils, I have identified a number of companies in the supermarket, bulk and boutique oil markets, some of whose products I have tested further and some I will analyze in the future.  One of these is The Olive & The Grape, which in the last 3 years has grown to a network of about 250 locations.  Other reports will appear on Truth in Olive Oil in the future.

Some commenters ask whether I’ve tested oils from a wide range of other stores.  Truth in Olive Oil does not claim to be able to be comprehensive about olive oil quality in North America, but is attempting to draw attention to products of high quality and raise questions where they arise.  (For further details see Targeted Testing, here).  It does so, again, by relying on knowledge, spot-tasting, site visits and industry information, which helps narrow down the universe of oils to be tested.

How were the samples collected?
The oil samples from The Olive & The Grape stores that were tested were either ordered by phone, or collected in person at the stores.  They were shipped unopened, sealed in their original packaging, to the laboratory.  No olive oil company played any role in the collection, shipping or testing of the samples.  At a separate time, I visited The Olive & The Grape stores in Scottsdale and Tubac, and tasted a number of oils.

Who paid for this?
One of my favorite comments so far:  “How can a freelance journalist afford something like this?”  I knew most people put freelance journalists pretty low on the food chain, but now I know just how low.  Anyway, this question is answered in the About page of www.truthinoliveoil.com, which was linked in the text of the article.  Individuals and corporations who want to improve olive oil quality in North America support Truth in Olive Oil’s activities, including its oil-testing program.  Veronica Foods is not one of these supporters – in fact, none of Truth in Olive Oil’s supporters competes in the boutique olive oil market.  (For more on this, see the About page.  For more on the aims of Truth in Olive Oil, see here)  The making of Fresh Squeezed, a documentary film about the olive oil industry worldwide which is in its early stages of development, is independent of the oil-testing program.  A number of companies, including Veronica Foods, have offered one-time assistance in making parts of Fresh Squeezed – again, more information in the About page.

Does Veronica Foods have anything to do with this?
Veronica Foods and other producers and purveyors of olive oil have been mentioned in my writings, and listed in the Great Oils pages on this site (see here, here, here, and other Great Oils country pages), because of the experiences I’ve had with the oils themselves, the high level of olive oil knowledge I’ve observed among their store owners, and the resulting oil + educational experience that consumers can receive.  I have taste tested oils at a number of Veronica Foods stores, incognito and/or unannounced, and found them uniformly excellent.  I have seen extensive lab test data, and consulted with the lab technician that did the work.  What’s more, Veronica Foods is only one of many quality olive oil merchants and producers whose work I have reported on.  Among others, the Truth in Olive Oil Great Oils list for North America page indicates 255 Williams-Sonoma stores, 93 Sur la Table stores, numerous olive oil boutiques from franchises like Oil & Vinegar and We Olive, as well as one-location outfits like The Olive Press in Sonoma, Mike Madison’s Yolo Press, Corti Brothers, and many others.  I have also written about high quality olive oils available in supermarkets and big box stores (see here).  Helping consumers to find top quality olive oil and solid oil education are among the main aims of Truth in Olive Oil.

As an independent journalist in olive oil, I believe that commenting on and raising questions about olive oil quality is part of my job – investigation and evaluation go hand in hand.  I draw my own conclusions based on evidence and experience, and speak for myself alone.  (For more on this, see the About page.)

Why Modern Olives laboratory?
Modern Olives laboratory was used for the chemical and sensory testing because of the international reputation of this lab and its staff, members of which I have met at international olive oil symposia and technical conferences.  Modern Olives has been accredited by the International Olive Council and the Australian National Association of Testing Authorities, ISO (17025), and the American Oil Chemists’ Society (with 2 awards for 1st place in accuracy).  It is used by the Australian government and by the Australian Olive Association for their industry monitoring, as well as by numerous major international oil companies.  In addition, Modern Olives laboratory head Claudia Guillaume is an American Oil Chemists’ Society approved chemist (meaning zero errors in inter-lab comparison for five years in a row), and is a leader in research into key new tests for olive oil quality.  In fact, Modern Olives has perhaps the most extensive experience in the world with two of the most important new tests, pyropheophytins (PPP) and 1,2-diacylglycerol (DAGs).  For an accurate and chemically sophisticated analysis of olive oil quality, Modern Olives is an obvious – in fact almost the only – choice.  I was not aware that Modern Olives was owned by Boundary Bend, one of the many suppliers of olive oil to Veronica Foods.  This is however common practice:  about half of IOC-approved labs are owned by olive oil companies, and to maintain their accreditations, these labs must maintain strict autonomy from their parent companies, which is audited annually by the accrediting organizations.  I have no reason to think that Modern Olives would jeopardize its world-class reputation and numerous prestigious accreditations with anything less than accurate scientific results.

Where are the original lab results?
As a journalist, I don’t share my original research material, just as I don’t share interview notes, correspondence with sources, etc.  This is standard journalistic practice.  The salient data from the laboratory reports was summarized in the article and its footnote.  At my request, Modern Olives has reviewed the results as reported in my article and its footnote, and confirms that they are entirely accurate.
 

§  §  § 
 

I hope this helps cut through the swirl of comments, many misinformed, surrounding my article, and refocuses discussion on its actual content, which I think deserves close attention.

Comments

Well Said Mr. Mueller-Keep up

Well Said Mr. Mueller-Keep up the good work on informing us American consumers about the fraud occurring in the US and abroad in the olive oil business-I personally have been following you for several years and respect your reports and findings- Great book too! BRAVO!
Disclosure (for all those posting): I do not own a olive oil store-I do not know Mr.Mueller or Veronica or Patil or...Just an olive oil consumer interested in the TIOO!

Applause! Also a small idea:

Applause! Also a small idea: If a retail company wants to get its oils tested, how about they put up the money for the sample collecting and testing, and a third party "mystery shopper" will then buy the oil at a time and location unknown, and then the collection will be tested and the results will be published here. Will there be a rush of retail companies seeking to get their oil tested and their results trotted out to the consuming public? Bet not, but let's see. Happy to be wrong!

This excellent reporting

This excellent reporting seems to have uncovered two things: fraud in the boutique industry and a veritable Tea Party - vitriolic and uninterested in facts - ready to defend it. As a careful reader, I found this article to be well researched and fair in its presentation - going so far as to give the alleged culprit an opportunity to explain. Moreover, as you point out, Tom, much of the testing results were identified in the footnote. It takes a particular level of obtuseness to claim entitlement to original copies or receipts, or to suggest sources must be identified. If someone claims to have proof of the falsity of any allegations, or evidence demonstrating some other kind of impropriety, then he or she should do the investigation and analysis first. However, making unsupported, speculative accusations in a comment does not constitute such proof or evidence.

Keep up the good work, Tom!

You're a helluva writer Tom.

You're a helluva writer Tom. To get stuff through the phalanx of lawyers, fact-checkers and editors at the New Yorker, as you did in 2007 when this journey began, requires extraordinary skill, craft, accuracy and balance. Those qualities coming screaming through in your current piece about the dubious edge of evoo "artisan-ship" in North America.
You didn't set the fire in this story. The Olive & Grape did. You were the investigative journalist who spotted it and chased it to its source. All credit to you for being true to your original goal. Those complaining the loudest or who are trying - not that cleverly - to undermine your integrity are creating smoke as a way to pretend the fire isn't there.
Which, clearly, it is. I note two retailers in Canada removed identical evoo flavour profiles from their websites within days of this story breaking. Both of them had previously posted descriptions like the ones that sent off alarms for you. Any wonder why?
To be clear, our family are evoo retailers and we have a dog in this hunt. That's our declared interest. And so what? By definition, everyone in this blog has one. Otherwise, we'd be outside playing with that dog.

"I was not aware that Modern

"I was not aware that Modern Olives was owned by Boundary Bend, one of the many suppliers of olive oil to Veronica Foods."

I'm sorry, with all of the knowledge of Modern Olives that you show, I find it very difficult to believe this statement.

It goes beyond that... VF is

It goes beyond that... VF is their EXCLUSIVE distributor in the US. Nobody else in the US can purchase their bulk product. VF secured an agreement with them where they buy 100% of their product for North American export to the exclusion of anyone else.

So, sending a sample (or 14)

So, sending a sample (or 14) to a lab that is owned by a company that sends 100% of their North American export to VF is at a minimum a conflict of interest for at least 2 parties if not all. Wouldn't you agree?

“OilAnon”, one more name out

“OilAnon”, one more name out of this small group of people doing everything they can to misdirect the focus of this article. Most of you don’t even attempt to hide the store you are trying to protect, and a quick search of your name is usually all it takes to see why you are now scrambling. Modern Olives, a highly respected lab, with world class certifications would risk it all for 14 tests, what a joke!

Calling into question and

Calling into question and pointing out what appears to be a conflict of interest in an article focusing on an investigative reporter is hardly misdirecting. I am not a fan of Mr. Patel and I don't buy his products because I don't like them. I will agree that Modern Olives is a respected lab, I will agree that Patels products are not great, I will agree that VF is one source for quality product, I will agree that Tom Mueller is a nice guy... what I won't agree to is the idea that it's even likely that EVERYONES hands are clean in this. So, Jack... I don't care what store/s or supplier you may represent, what I do care about is what is possibly a conflict of interest on at least one party's part in the destruction of someone's business... including yours. Have a successful day!

Tom, great work as everyone

Tom, great work as everyone has said!! I agree fully with Bill McArthur, we also have "two dogs in this hunt"....."Ladies and gents, as someone said The Truth Hurts"..... for those of you selling garbage it is just a matter of time, Customer are becoming more aware of what is good and bad, they will make their decisions...that is all we have to do, demonstrate the difference and let them choose....

Just wait until someone starts to uncover 'The Truth in Balsamic" that will be fun.

When all is said and done, as

When all is said and done, as in most cases where there is some type of deceit going on, the consumer is the loser. The "Patel's" of the world are not even remotely interested in providing a quality product but are intersted in duping the public in exchange for more money. This is commonly called greed. They, along with others, are the Bernie Madoff of the olive oil world. I grew up where a person's words, actions and a handshake were sacred. Obviously Mr. Patel missed this lesson in life. Think about all of the people who have spent money in his stores thinking they were getting the "best." What about all of the retailers that he supplies. How would you feel, knowing now, that you were sold (unsuspecting, I'm assuming) an inferior product to market. As an aspiring entrepreneur, you believed that this man was selling you a superior product to market. Now what! What do you say to a customer that comes to your store and wants to know what is going on. I hope Patel has deep pockets because I'd be on the phone demanding some type of compensation. I have no idea what his franchise, set up and marketing fees are, but I'm sure they're not free. By the way, where's the FDA or the Dept. of Ag., or whoever oversees this kind of fraud. When you put a foreign substance, i.e., canola oil, and market it as an EVOO....that's fraud. Do I see a class action law suit coming down the pike. Educating the general public is the best way to eliminate this kind of fraud. Tom Mueller started it all with his book, and whether you want to believe it or not, Veronica Foods (Mike and Veronica) are the leaders in this movement. I dare anyone to visit one of the stores that VF supplies and not come away with a good feeling about their products. The consumer is the winner at these stores, not the supplier or the retailer.

very disappointing to see

very disappointing to see Turkey exluded from list of producers, when in fact their oil is not only among the best, but routinely labled for sale in North Amercica has either Greek or Italian origin.

There is no doubt that there

There is no doubt that there are a lot of poor quality olive oils out there, and for that I'm very supportive of discussion on how to improve transparency to consumers.

Unfortunately, one just can't base anything on lab results coming from a private lab. To claim ignorance that Modern Olives is owned by Boundary Bend is embarrasing (and unbelieveable), because any self-professed industry expert should know this. Not only is it well-known, but Boundary Bend is no small company, controlling almost 90% of sales of Australian olive oil in Australia with Cobram Estate and Red Island brands, so a monopoly in Australia and clearly with interests in expanding into the US.

In addition, to suggest that the Modern Olives lab nevertheless is strictly independent is simply an unfounded statement. The lab shares the same building with the rest of Boundary Bend, as well has having common staff and directors (one such example being Leandro Ravetti), so not at all independent.

Finally, let's get clarity about the lab's credentials: While Claudia has won much acclaim and should be applauded for that, it should be noted that Modern Olives is not (and has not ever been) accredited for sensory analysis. Even more disturbing than this is that in 2012 Modern Olives did not pass the basic accuracy tests for retaining accreditation for chemical testing, so lost their accreditation for this sort of testing as well (which they have only recently regained). So it isn't exactly a glowing scorecard.

Notwithstanding all of this, I'm sure that there are poor quality olive oils that need to be caught out, because even as someone with only a little sensory training, I can taste the waxes of pomace a mile away and it is hiding in many oils. What this discussion does tell though is that truly independent labs are hard to come by, but will be critical in making further testing believable.

Tom, you are perhaps one of the most knowledgeable people in the world on this topic and I think you are doing the industry and the public a great service in your mission to clean up olive oil, but my one humble opinion is that you need to make sure you take a balanced view in the future.

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