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Losing ‘Virginity’: Olive Oil’s Scandalous Fraud and How to Protect Yourself From It

December 13, 2011

If you’ve not yet read Tom Mueller’s 2007 New Yorker article, “A Slippery Business”, I invite you to do so; in it he uncovers an astonishing world of product adulteration with regard to olive oil.  It is a fast and engaging read.

The process of researching and writing the 2007 article was so compelling to him that Tom devoted the past five years to researching and writing further to present a snapshot — a cultural, culinary and criminal history of olive oil — in his new book, Extra Virginity:  The Sublime and Scandalous World of Olive Oil.

Currently on a book tour in SF, LA and NY, Tom’s 20 minute “Fresh Air” interview with NPR’s Terry Gross today generated 60 comments in the first few hours, many from distressed consumers aching for an answer as to which olive oils to trust, which moves me to offer this post.

Whom do you trust?  How do you choose?  

It is very “20th century” to assume that EVOO is just a flavorless fat, and it is plain wrong to assign positive or negative attributes to an oil based on its country of origin.  As Tom mentions in the interview, modern methods of farming, harvesting and extracting oil have enabled farmers to elevate this lively fruit juice onto an entirely new plane. Yes, there is rampant adulteration and fraud in our industry, however there are also thousands of small producers crafting excellent product and dozens of large producers who are doing the same.

FACT:  Dozens of countries cultivate hundreds (thousands, actually) of varieties of olives, each with unique varietal characteristics.  Climate, soil, irrigation, variety, harvest and milling methods and blending techniques are just a few of the things that contribute to an oil’s character, and the fresher the product, the better.  Olives made into olive oil are as diverse and amazing as grapes are made into wine, and today we have the opportunity to appreciate the nuance and complexity of them as never before.

FACT:  There are several certifying bodies which guarantee quality — at time of bottling.  More on “time of bottling” later.

Century-old olive tree. Corning, CA (photo by Tagami)

You can trust EVOO producers that use third party labs to certify authenticity via chemical analysis and use trained, internationally calibrated and certified tasting panels to qualify the oils as “Extra Virgin” via organoleptic (sensory) means.  The two best known certifying bodies to us here on the west coast are the California Olive Oil Council and the Australian Olive Association.  Click through the COOC and AOA links above for lists of growers you can trust, many of whom have their own websites which allow you to buy directly from them.

You can trust winners from major competitions (current year).  I’ve given you a short list of three well known competitions below.  If an oil has earned a medal in competition they will have a sticker on the bottle.  I don’t mean an image of a medal from the 1893 fair in Chicago, I mean a sticker on the bottle from a competition in the past year.  These stickers are regulated.

Why do I say that these designations help identify an oil as EV at the time of bottling?  It is because olive oil degrades with time and eventually becomes rancid.  The reason growers bottle in dark glass is to protect the oil from light and slow down this process.  If an importer, distributor and/or retailer does not turn inventory it may be sold to you as already rancid even if it left the producer in fine condition.  If oil is stored near heat or light it will age faster, too.  If you — as a consumer — keep your oil near the stove, in a sunny window, or in a warm pantry, if you leave the top off the bottle and let air get to it, your oil will age faster.

Olives are washed before milling. Corning, CA (photo by Tagami)

There is a movement now amongst growers to add HARVEST date to the package, not just “Best By” date.  Look for this when you shop and buy from the most current harvest year that you can.  Generally speaking, northern hemisphere oils are being produced now and will be released in February/March as 2011 Harvest, good through Fall 2013.  Southern hemisphere oils were harvested in the Spring, and this year’s harvest is good through Spring 2013.

FACT:  You cannot trust a bottle just because it says “First Cold Pressed”, this is a meaningless phrase, completely unregulated, and a carryover from when olives were pressed.  Sorry to spoil the romance, but very few olives are pressed today.  The modern method is much different.  See an example of modern milling methods on this video.

What is the fast and easy answer for EVOO if you don’t want to pay premium prices?   The most affordable and accessible extra virgin olive oil in the US today is California Olive Ranch “Everyday Fresh”, found in thousands of grocery stores across America.  A company of similar standards and accessibility from the southern hemisphere is Boundary Bend “Cobram Estate”.

The two artisan producers in California with whom I’m most familiar are Lucero Olive Oil in Corning and The Olive Press in Sonoma.  I endorse them highly.  There are dozens of producers throughout the Mediterranean and South America that I stand behind, too numerous to iterate here.  They are active in promoting their brands at top retailers such as Williams-Sonoma, Sur la Table and Dean & Deluca and can be found on the lists of top oils in competition.

Vote with your pocketbook.  Support the growers.

Quality oils taste good and are good for you.

Liz Tagami at an Arbequina Olive Harvest 2011

14 December 2011 Addendum:  Although there is no unifying standard across Europe for authentic extra virgin that is represented by a seal or badge, it is generally safe to assume that any oil with an AOC, DOP or IGP designation will be of high quality.  These oils undergo careful scrutiny and therefore are nearly always beyond reproach.  Thanks to colleague Alexandra Devarenne for pointing this out.  You can read more of her work at CalAthena, newly added to my blogroll.  

23 Comments leave one →
  1. December 13, 2011 3:10 AM

    As always, your writing is impeccable and your information second to none. Keep up the excellent work!

  2. December 13, 2011 5:58 AM

    Great article, Liz. Would have been better if you’d given a little plug for Tunisian olive oil. Exports to the US market have increased by 10 percent and sales have jumped 500% . Tunisia produces the best olive oil I’ve tasted.

    • December 13, 2011 12:09 PM

      Hi Steve, Thanks for the call out. As I mention in the article, we need to move beyond ascribing positive or negative attributes by country; in this business it is truly more genuine to rate oils from producer to producer. That said, I know of one Tunisian producer in particular who has won international awards. The company name is Société de Conditionnement des Huiles d’Olive and they do business as CHO or CHO America. The brand they have on the shelves in the US is called Mediterranean Delight, a quite mild tasting everyday sort of oil made of traditional varieties from North Africa (mostly Chemlali and Chetoui). Their oils have won awards at both BioFach, Nürnberg (The Organic Show in Germany), and also at TerraOlivo in Jerusalem. It is available in the US and Canada. You can find the 1 liter size at over 250 Cost Plus World Market stores in the US.

  3. December 14, 2011 3:07 AM

    Hey Liz,

    A poster on the NPR article replied to another poster about the solvent extraction method:

    “Most oils are simply pressed as you state. Not true. They are run through the solvent extraction method involving hexane or ligroin. During this process, heat is created and enough to destroy and alter many of the nutrients found with the oil or fat in these nuts and seeds. The industry claims that the solvents used are removed or dissipated off. Again false as tests done on these oils find a low percentage of them left behind.
    These solvents are known liver toxins. ”

    Can you shed any light on this and which producers don’t use solvents?

    I am a honey producer and we have the same problem with HFCS, beet sugar, etc adulteration. It is obvious the FDA has failed miserably.

    I work part time at a local creamery as the cheese maker. I raise chickens and pigs without antibiotics, garden without poisons and can. It’s gotten to the point that if I don’t grow it, I don’t eat it. What a sad state of affairs.

    • December 14, 2011 1:22 PM

      Hi Paul,

      Thanks for your thoughtful question. The simplified answer is that the process of using heat and solvents, then deodorizing an oil, has been bundled into a neat word we see everyday: refined.

      If an olive oil is labeled “pure” or “light”, it is — ironically — refined. The NPR poster who mentioned it is correct in that there is no aroma, flavor or nutrient value from the olive from which it came except if the producer added some virgin or extra virgin back into the mixture. What is typically left in this refined product is a fat without flavor or character.

      If an olive oil is labeled “extra virgin” it should be extracted by mechanical means only — no chemicals and no high heat…thus the reason for Tom’s book, as the equity of the label “extra virgin” has been diluted by the fraudsters.

      As to your question as to who does not use solvents: if an olive oil is labeled “Extra Virgin” and has a COOC or AOA seal you can be assured that the oil has been analyzed by a lab and has passed a blind tasting by a panel specifically trained to identify defects and articulate positive attributes.

      Unfortunately, the criteria I’ve laid out in the paragraph above excludes all of the wonderful and legitimate extra virgin olive oil producers in Europe, Africa, Asia and South America as there is no internationally recognized seal of quality — thus my referral to those who have earned awards in competition. They are legion and should be explored.

      Frankly speaking, the artisan brands (versus the grocery brands) will be completely free of solvents as it is simply not the scale to which they work. I should point out that the new world “super high density” growers who are able to produce at impressive scale and use modern means to quickly harvest and mill a high quality product at an “entry level” price are also completely chemical free. The best known of them are California Olive Ranch, Corto Olive Company (both COOC members) and Boundary Bend/Cobram Estate (AOA seal holder). Soon you will see more Chilean and Argentine EVOOs in this same class.

      Some consumers have shied from purchasing extra virgin olive oil as “too expensive”, however the scientific and medical evidence as to the health benefit of FRESH extra virgin olive oil is irrefutable and compelling. If we, as Americans, spent more money on wholesome food we’d spend far less on over the counter and prescription medications, and spend less on expensive nutritional supplements, too!

      You might also find this article of interest It is an Olive Oil Times article about a new global movement, a World Olive Oil Quality Alliance (WOOQA). Many quality olive oil producers in Europe are ready to join the new world growers to “take back” the “brand” extra virgin. We are the on the cusp of change.

      This is a very brief answer and in no way comprehensive, but I hope that you find it a helpful beginning.


      [PS: Congratulations on your Wood Hollow life. Your website is lovely.]

  4. December 14, 2011 4:10 AM

    Hi Liz, do you know that Tom Mueller will be in TERRAOLIVO CONGRESS 2012, Israel???
    Yes, he will held the International Congress Jun 10/13 2012, Israel.
    Also i can tell you that several american growers from your country will attend also.
    Do u spoke with Adam??

    • December 14, 2011 1:28 PM

      Hi Moises,
      Yes, Tom mentioned it. He wishes he could have included more about Israeli agriculture and innovative olive research in his book; this is a good opportunity for him to continue his research for the next book and future magazine articles.
      The American producers are just finishing harvest and I’m sure thinking about which competitions to enter and conferences to attend in the spring. As soon as you have the program completed I’m sure they will be eager to review the materials.

  5. Dennis permalink
    December 14, 2011 7:04 PM

    This is very educational. I’m overwhelmed by your knowledge.

  6. December 15, 2011 7:23 AM

    Hi Liz,
    Just a caveat on the addendum about DOPs. The designated origin seals increase the likelihood that you are getting a real extra virgin olive oil, but it’s important for people to realize that it is not an ironclad guarantee of high quality. But as you pointed out, the increased scrutiny of the DOPs improves your odds of getting a real extra virgin, however (but check that Best Buy date!).
    Also, I would encourage people who are looking at California oils to look for winners from the Yolo County Fair or the Napa County Fair. Both of those are large competitions of California oils, judged by trained olive oil tasters.
    Thanks for the good info, Liz!

  7. December 18, 2011 1:16 AM

    great info liz, you know your oil

    Our olio nuovo from harvest/press dates Nov 22nd/23rd, 2011 lab tested extra virgin with flying colors.

    happy we stumbled upon your blog.

    • December 18, 2011 1:02 PM

      Dear folks at Casa Rosa Farms,
      I’m glad you found this essay also! Congratulations on your harvest and also for earning a COOC seal this year. – Liz

  8. Cheri Murrell permalink
    December 19, 2011 2:03 PM

    Hello Liz,
    I’d like to thank you for introducing me to Tom Mueller and his efforts to expose the problems from which the olive oil industry now suffers. Your article provides explicit information which will be of great help to people like me who are not in the food business, but keep a watchful eye on the products we consume. In particular, the links to quality olive oil producers are invaluable, and I’ve already shared this article with dozens of friends — most of whom were completely unaware of the issue of the adulteration of what we are led to believe is a ‘virgin’ product. They also feel that they’ve been defrauded by paying for a product which is not what it claims to be, and are vowing to vote with their pocketbooks! Thank you for spreading the word!!

  9. December 19, 2011 3:17 PM

    Hello Cheri,
    Thank you for your kind remarks and for telling your friends about the situation.

    As consumers we all want to get what we pay for, and with modern research showing us that with modern methods of olive breeding, cultivation and oil extraction that ever-higher levels of antioxidants can be achieved (with ever more complex, nuanced and interesting flavors), it is incumbent upon all of us to let the industry know that we know.

    If a trader wants to sell olive oil mixed with something else, or oil that is post peak or slightly defective — fine; just label it appropriately and don’t call it extra virgin.

  10. David F permalink
    January 1, 2012 1:13 AM

    Paul – whoever you are, you make much needed info about olive oil known, and, as a consumer who’s frustrated with olive oil fakery, I just learn of hexane and ligroin. This is really scary! Whom can you believe? Where is reliable/real olive oil? I get “Two Brothers” at Whole Foods Market. How do I know it’s real(healthy)?

    • February 27, 2012 1:02 PM

      Hi David,
      I see you also left a message on the Olive Oil Times site about this brand. I do not know it, but I do know that over the past year Whole Foods buyers have been diligently reviewing all sources of supply for olive oil for both authenticity and quality. Does this producer indicate the harvest date on the bottle? This is only one data point, but — generally speaking — seeing harvest date is typically a strong indicator that this is not from generic bulk tanks full of oil of indeterminate age or provenance.

  11. Brandy permalink
    February 26, 2012 3:01 PM

    Forget about healthy, I just want to know which oils are safe to consume when you have tree nut allergies.

    • February 27, 2012 12:55 PM

      Hi Brandy,
      You can be confident that any olive oil certified by the California Olive Oil Council is 100% allergen free if you have tree nut allergies. I have listed several brand names in my essay.

  12. Brandy permalink
    February 27, 2012 4:33 PM

    Are any of those brands available in Ontario, Canada?

    • February 27, 2012 6:05 PM

      Hi again, Brandy!
      I’m not sure where you are in Ontario, but I checked and California Olive Ranch is available in 20 locations in the Toronto area alone. The oil that is the best seller and best everyday value is the one they call “Everyday Fresh”. The price will be under CAN $10.00 for 500 ml. Also, I can personally vouch for nearly all of the Williams-Sonoma assortment. The best value and most accessible SKU is probably the WS House Olive Oil Item #8578783 This is a more expensive oil in gift glass at USD 27.00 for 750 ml. There are four Williams-Sonoma stores in the Toronto area and you can also purchase on line. Good luck!

  13. June 26, 2013 5:33 AM

    Wow What an education you are giving us…maybe this is why my mom gets sick all the time. I know my folks buy oil from Acme Markets here in PA when they have canned olive oil on sale really cheap. I’m going to pass the next time they offer some to me. I always thought that it tasted strange when I use it to fry pizza’s. I’m posting to my facebook page to let others in on this valuable information, Thanks Liz!!!

    • July 3, 2013 10:42 PM

      Dear Gina,

      Thank you for taking the time to comment and also for sharing this information with your friends on FB. I’ve been traveling and working a lot with olive oil people this past year, so have not found much time for writing. Your words motivate me to renew my efforts here, so check back — I hope to share more with you in the months to come. Best regards, Liz

      PS: Two olive oils I know to be good in the PA area are California Olive Ranch Everyday Fresh and Bill Sanders First Fresh.

  14. sandra permalink
    October 31, 2013 6:22 AM

    Thank you for such an informative article. Lately, I have been purchasing the Trader Joe’s brand “Extra Virgin California Estate Olive Oil,” which received excellent reviews from Consumer Reports. Can you tell me if this oil is, indeed, “extra virgin”? It tastes quite fresh and the price is right, but there is no seal or mention of any kind of certification on the bottle, which concerns me.

    • October 31, 2013 6:53 AM

      Thank you for your question Sandra. Although Trader Joe’s does not publicize the source on the label, I do know the producer of this oil and can verify that as of this writing the “California Estate EVOO” is an authentic EVOO from olives grown, milled, and bottled in California to standards which exceed USDA requirements and far exceed IOC — International Olive Council — standards. As long as the oil you purchase has been stored properly by your local store, you can be assured that you are getting true extra-virgin.

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