10 Tips to Beat an Olive Oil Scam

Olive oil scam taints more than half of all supplies: Internet Scambusters #488

Growing demand and rich pickings for international crooks are driving a huge olive oil scam.

As much as two thirds of the extra virgin olive oil we see on our grocery store shelves may be mislabeled or even bogus — using a totally different oil.

But don’t worry, we’ve got your back, with 10 great tips that will help you check and identify the oil you buy.

10 Tips to Beat the Olive Oil Scam

Americans spend more than $700 million a year on olive oil, but most of that may be money down the drain because of a big-time olive oil scam.

As much as two thirds of the high quality olive oil we buy — and maybe even more — is not what it says on the bottle.

We’re being duped into paying premium prices for a poor quality product that may contain little or no olive oil at all.

And even if it does, it likely won’t be of the quality you think you’re paying for.

A book published late last year lifted the lid on the great olive oil scam but it’s been known for years that, knowingly or unknowingly, the people who sell the stuff to us may be offering a phony product.

For example, a report produced in 2010 by UC-Davis found that more than two thirds of common brands of extra virgin olive oil being sold in California were nothing of the sort.

Sellers of inaccurately labeled oil included one of the biggest names in grocery retailing in the US, though there’s no suggestion the store chain knew of the deception.

In fact, of the dozens of stores whose sales were analyzed, only six were selling the genuine product.

There are actually hundreds of varieties of olives but only a few main classifications for olive oil, including:

  • Extra virgin, which is literally the “juice” of freshly picked olives. It is produced by pressing or a low heat process but, importantly, does not use chemicals of the type employed in the refining of other oils.
  • Virgin olive oil, produced the same way but comes from riper olives or a second pressing, though it is still wholesome.
  • Blends — sometimes referred to as “light” or “pure.” That they may be, but they include “refined” olive oil, which usually means some or all of it has been chemically processed.
  • Poor quality oil, known as “lampante,” using the Italian word for lamp oil — considered unfit for human consumption — which may be derived from old, rancid olives, often ones that have been lying on the ground for some time, and likely has been chemically processed.In fact, lampante often turns up in olive oil mixtures. But, if the oil is phony, it’s just as likely to contain mainly a cheap seed oil like sunflower oil.

Just last year, two Spanish businessmen were jailed for selling supposed extra virgin olive oil that was, in fact, 75% sunflower oil.

And in 2007, some 10,000 cases of labeled olive oil seized by US law enforcement officers were found to contain only soy oil.

The popularity of olive oil is due to its supposed health giving properties; it is, after all, the only oil produced in any quantity from fruit rather than nuts or seeds.

And the reason for the olive oil scam is simple — money.

Growing, nurturing and harvesting quality olives is an expensive business. So if you can pass off cheap substitutes as the real thing you can make a lot of money.

This is the theme Tom Mueller picks up in his book “Extra Virginity: The Sublime and Scandalous World of Olive Oil.”

He says that producers are being forced out of business because of the olive oil scam, since they can’t compete with the low prices of the phony product.

“The honest people are getting terribly undercut,” he said in a recent NPR broadcast. “There’s a huge unfair advantage in favor of the bad stuff. At the same time, consumers are being defrauded of the health and culinary benefits of great olive oil.”

The crooks and even legitimate producers have many ways to fool the public, apart from simply lying.

For example, labels might imply the oil was produced in Italy when, in fact, it was only bottled there, having been produced say in Africa or the Middle East — not that there’s anything wrong with those sources, but implying the oil is from Italy enables suppliers to charge a premium.

Sometimes, the real source may be declared, but buried in the fine print on the label.

Furthermore, strict labeling requirements and quality checks in Europe are driving the olive oil scam across the Atlantic where disclosure rules are less stringent.

Bad or rancid olive oil does not have the antioxidant and anti-inflammatory elements of olive oil, says Mueller, adding: “What (good olive oil) gets you from a health perspective is a cocktail of 200-plus highly beneficial ingredients that explain why olive oil has been the heart of the Mediterranean diet,” he says.

“Bad olives have free radicals and impurities, and then you’ve lost that wonderful cocktail …that you get from fresh fruit, from real extra-virgin olive oil.”

So, is there any way you can tell if you’re the victim of an olive oil scam, or even whether you’re being intentionally or unintentionally misled by the labeling on a bottle?

Well, first you can download that UC-Davis report, and learn more about the content and flavors that contribute to the olive quality – as well as seeing which stores were selling what!

Second, you can read the transcript of the NPR interview with author Mueller.

Here are 8 more tips culled from the book and other sources:

  • Be suspicious of anything described as extra virgin that costs less than $10 a liter. It likely isn’t the real thing (although some prices come close).
  • Look for the seal of the International Olive Council (IOC) on the label (though, of course, crooks can forge this). Not all products have the seal, but it’s a good sign if it’s there.
  • Look for a harvesting date or description on the label, rather the same as you find on wine labels. If there’s a date and/or harvest description, it’s probably genuine (though, again, this could be forged).
  • Educate yourself more about olives at the International Olive Council site.
  • Understand that anything labeled as “light” or “pure” olive oil likely has been processed and is not “virgin” quality.
  • Opt for California-produced oil. It’s less likely to be part of the olive oil scam than something from Italy or other countries.
  • If you’re able to smell the oil before you buy, do so. “It should smell fresh and fruity, without any hint of mustiness,” says Mueller.
  • Shop for oil in dark bottles. A lot of genuine extra virgin oil (excluding the big grocery stores’ own brands) is bottled this way to protect the oil from harmful sunlight.

We don’t want to suggest that products that fail to meet the requirements we’ve listed are necessarily phony.

It’s just that, on balance, you’re more likely to get a genuine product by following these guidelines, sidestepping the possibility of an olive oil scam.

That’s all we have for today, but we’ll be back next week with another issue. See you then!