Be careful what olive oil you’re dipping your bread into because it might be diluted with other oils not shown on the label.
Food experts are predicting 2019 to be a bad year for fraudulent olive oils flooding the market. Bad weather and the spread of a bacteria that kills olive trees in Europe has resulted in years of bad harvests but none quite so devastating as this year.
Italy, for one, has seen roughly 50 per cent of its crop destroyed.
“Overall, there are less olives out there,” says Dalhousie food expert Sylvain Charlebois. “Inventories are low. And it makes for a tempting scenario for companies who do want to commit food fraud.”
Olive oil has been diluted since the days of the Roman Empire because of demand and profit. The most common practice is to cut it with cheaper oils like sunflower or canola.
Extra virgin is most often targeted because of its higher price point and a loose definition of what constitutes a true “extra virgin” olive oil. The term refers to the oil taken from the first pressing of the olives. But nowhere does it say the olives can’t be two to three years old, which Charlebois says is a common practice.
“Olive oils are often targeted by fraudsters because most consumers aren’t educated on how it should taste,” says Charlebois.
For the most part, diluting the oil just changes the taste and is otherwise undetectable. But when peanut-based oils are added and not identified on the label, it can be dangerous for consumers with allergies.
“As a consumer, your expectation is to have safe food on the market,” says Aline Dimitri of the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, “and that what you’re purchasing is what you’re getting.”
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But the reality is, far too often, we’re not. Last year, Brazil’s Ministry of Agriculture reported 60 per cent of the product it tested was not true to what was on the label with some brands actually found to be 85 per cent soybean oil.
Other countries most associated with growing olives — notably Italy, Greece, Spain and Portugal — have had similar problems.
And Charlebois points to a California study in 2013 that estimated 69 per cent of all olive oil sold in North America was adulterated but adds, “based on the CFIA, those numbers have dropped because we’re testing more.”
The CFIA runs the only lab in Canada accredited by the International Olive Oil Council. They’re watching the market closely and are conducting extensive testing in response to worldwide shortages in product mixed with high demand.
Inspectors have been given more powers in recent years so they can now trace the origin of the olives. And if they find inaccuracies, they can either take the product off the shelf or ask that it be re-labelled.
They use up to 18 different methods in their labs to break down the oils all the while knowing criminal organizations are looking for new ways to trick them.
“Every time we close a hole by figuring out how to test for it, somebody else is trying to find a way to create a new hole,” says Dimitri.
The reality is that few consumers will be able to notice the difference between a pure oil and one that’s been diluted.
The simplest way to spot fraud is price. Experts say if it’s too good to be true, chances are it is.
Andreas Voulgaris does extensive testing before buying a product for his Toronto-based Olive Oil Emporium. He lists a detailed chemical breakdown of what he’s selling on oil-filled urns. He says consumers should be able to ask about the name of the producer, where the olives were grown, as well as the type of olive.
“All of these might not ensure the end user that it’s a fantastic olive oil,” he says. “But the more information that is present at least gives you the assurance that the people bottling the product are a little bit more serious about what they’re doing.”