Crude olive oil
Author Tom Mueller exposes fraud behind certain extra virgin labels
Another alarming new food book has sent me scrambling to the pantry to check the labels of my ingredients.
This time, it was author Tom Mueller’s, “Extra Virginity: The Sublime and Scandalous World of Olive Oil,” a book that reveals that most of the extra virgin olive oils sold in U.S. supermarkets are not what they seem. In fact, in Mueller’s new book, he reveals that most of the oils labeled “extra virgin” are probably not the quality, antioxidant rich oils that consumers think they’re eating to protect themselves from cancer, heart disease, Alzheimer’s and other health problems.
In the book, he chronicles how resellers mix olive oil with lower-quality, lower-priced seed oils that have been extracted using industrial solvents and then pass it off as high-quality olive oil. Some of the oils have been heated, deodorized and colored to perpetuate the fraud. One of the producers he interviews for the book estimates that some 50 percent of oils sold as “extra virgin” are not.
Mueller first revealed how fraud and a lack of import oversight has allowed producers to pass off adulterated oil as authentic extra virgin olive oil in his August 2007 New Yorker article “Letter From Italy: Slippery Business.”
“This is the first time I’ve written a book,” Mueller says. “It was the first time that after an article ran I wasn’t ready to move on to the next subject. Even now that I have finished the book, it still feels like there is a lot more to do.”
Mueller lives in Liguria, Italy with his wife and children. His work has also appeared in the New York Times Magazine, Atlantic Monthly and National Geographic. He visited his mother in Spokane during the holiday season and sat down to talk about his new book while he was here. He comes to the area almost every year to see his family and spend time at a family cabin on Spirit Lake. “Although I’ve never lived here, I’m more from here than any place else,” he says.
Writing about olive oil was unexpected. Mueller was discussing article ideas with his New Yorker editor when the subject was tossed around as a possible story.
“It seemed like, well, I live in Italy and I have been having some good olive oil … I must know something about it,” he says. “Three weeks after I started, I was sitting in a dark bar talking with this undercover military policeman who was mentioning (Italian Prime Minister Silvio) Berlusconi and wire taps and national criminal conspiracies and I thought, ‘What is this? I didn’t sign on for heroin trafficking, or uranium or anything like that. This is olive oil.’ ”
“I thought it was going to be a happy, upbeat, tasty story. Very, very soon after I realized it was very different than what I expected and much richer,” he says.
True extra virgin olive oil must meet strict quality standards. It means the oil is made only from crushed olives and has not been treated with heat or chemical solvents. To meet the legal definition of “extra virgin” it must also pass a taste test, and Mueller shares stories of the experts at work. They slurp the oil to test for official flaws, such as rancid, fusty and grubby.
However, in the United States, the FDA allows producers to label their products as heart-healthy without checking what goes into the bottle.
“There’s no oversight. Just .3 percent of food that comes into America, undergoes any kind of checking whatsoever and that includes barcode scans,” Mueller says.
Mueller’s book goes into the inner-workings of the billion-dollar industry and the ways authentic oil producers have been undercut by fraudulent oils. He visits with families and producers in California, Italy and Australia who make traditional olive oils, but are in danger of bankruptcy because they’re being undercut by fake oils and fraudulent labels.
Even the bad producers are in danger, he says. “They’ve eliminated value from extra virgin olive oil, dumbed down the product so that even the largest scale producers are losing their shirts. It’s the dark side of olive oil that makes it so hard for the good guys to live and for us to get good oil.”
Mueller also visits with scientists who are still discovering the potent chemical components of true extra virgin olive oil and its health benefits. He weaves the rich history of olive oil and its value to ancient cultures throughout the tale.
Mueller says he hopes “Extra Virginity” will help consumers educate themselves and help to create a demand for true extra virgin oils. It needs the same kind of revolution in thinking that has led people to pay more attention to the coffee, wine, microbrews and even chocolate they consume.
He hopes chefs and other cooks will embrace the flavor variations of different varietals of oils and start to discover the startling flavors it can bring to different dishes, as he did while researching the book.
The U.S., he says, needs to set its own standard for excellence in oils.
“People ask me, ‘What is the best olive oil in the world?’ And I say, ‘Well, what is the best wine in the world?’ It is exactly as complex,” Mueller says.
It’s a challenge to identify authentic oil, Mueller says, but it is the question he’s asked most since the book was published in December. One can’t look at the label of an olive oil and know for certain that it is truly extra virgin. “Extra Virginity” includes an appendix designed to help consumers choose good oil. He’s also gathering information on his website, www.extravirginity.com, with importers he trusts and businesses that understand the importance of being choosy about their producers; there’s also a list of trusted suppliers.
In general, it helps to think of the oil as a fresh product. “It’s a fresh squeezed fruit juice and it’s a seasonal crop. It’s not an industrial fat with an infinite shelf life,” he says.
Consumers should learn how to recognize when oil is rancid. Oil should be sold in dark or opaque bottles, instead of clear glass.
Mueller says consumers should taste a couple of different varieties of oils to see which flavors they like best. Mild arbequina oil is a good starting place. Buy only enough oil so that it is used and replaced quickly.
Look for a harvest date on the bottle, he says. Serious purveyors of extra virgin oils will include that information with their product.
Mueller says he’s not trying to demonize the entire olive oil industry. He hopes that by revealing the practices, changes will be made to help authentic olive oil businesses and the families who run them survive.
“There’s nothing wrong with industrial oil per se, as long as it says it on the bottle,” Mueller says. “It’s just not what you think you’re getting.”