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