Olive oil aficionados beware: that bottle of extra virgin olive oil may not be as pristine as labeled.
a recent visit to a Lower East Side supermarket, most of the displayed
bottles of extra virgin (popularized as EVOO by the cheerful food icon
Rachael Ray) are Italian, Spanish or Greek imports ranging from $10 to
$15/liter, with one brand on sale for about $7. One's understandable inclination would be to reach for the bargain. And why not? Doesn't extra virgin always mean extra virgin?
Well, as it turns out, not really.
First, what makes EVOO any better than, say, mere virgin? According to Steve Horton of Red Island Australian Olive Oil, the arduous manufacturing process of EVOO is as much art as science; by definition, its olives must be pressed within hours of harvest.
European standards (usually followed internationally) stipulate that the fruit used for pressing into EVOO exhibit an acidity level below 0.8%, as compared to the 2% allowed for merely virgin oil, with higher levels permitted for cruder grades such as so-called pomace oil which is often used in restaurants. Acidity, fermentation, oxidation and ultraviolet levels all rise as olive freshness declines.
EVOO should boast a rich olive green color, thin consistency (for effective coating and cooking), subtle sweetness and faint peppery aftertaste. And each bottle should contain nothing but 100% EVOO.
Batches of phony oil have been found to contain rancid olives, often contaminated by dirt and even manure. Processors of this swill often use chlorophyll dye and artificial additives to disguise its awful taste, and are frequently capable of actually mimicking the look and flavor of real EVOO.
EU standards do in fact pose challenges for would-be olive oil hucksters; Italy for its part augments European rules by deploying a platoon of official tasters to monitor its olive oil processors. Nevertheless, this is one tough global industry to police, and fake product has continued to find its way to supermarket shelves throughout Europe. Many shipments of fake EVOO have also appeared in the US where olive oil consumption increased eightfold from 1982 to 2006.
In 1995, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) found that of 73 olive oil brands tested only 4% were pure olive oil. Most included other vegetable and nut oils, while some bottle contained as little as 10% olive oil. A few years later the Canadian Food Inspection Agency studied 100 olive oils and found that 20% were fake.
There's also another often overlooked issue: extraneous ingredients could render these fakes verboten for followers of kosher or halal dietary laws.
Inspectors in Connecticut, California and New York have introduced EU-type consumer protection standards which make it easier for the authorities to issue penalties and carry out recalls. This incentivizes retailers to self-police by extracting more rigorous proof from wholesalers that the contents in the bottle match the label.
Meanwhile, bottlers may voluntarily submit their product for testing to receive an EVOO seal of authenticity from organizations such as the North American Olive Oil Association, while Californian olive oil producers are eligible for a seal from the California Olive Oil Association.
Still, it's a big country and inspectors can't be everywhere all the time which still allows unscrupulous importers to get their cheap, mislabeled oil sold at retailers such as dollar stores.
So how do you ensure that 100% EVOO label matches the oil in the bottle? Follow a few simple rules: splurge for a reputable brand (not necessarily Mediterranean in origin); avoid tin containers with inscrutable labels, and assume that if the price is just too good, the product may not be.