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Exploring Food Fraud in the Olive Oil Industry

Treasure Valley Food Coalition hosts seminars on honest oil

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Thrusting a tiny cup filled with a thick, verdant liquid into my hand, Treasure Valley Food Coalition Treasurer Susan Medlin issued a word of caution: "Be careful because all olive oil is quite peppery," she said, tipping the contents of her cup into her mouth and swallowing. "That doesn't have much bite but you can really taste the olive. If you wait just a minute, in the back of your throat you can now feel the little sparklies."

The olive oil, a variety called Sevillano made by California producer Lucero, coated my mouth with a thin, fruity sheen before lighting up the back of my throat with almost effervescent pings of pepperiness.

"In Italy, the real deal, you have to cough," said Medlin.

Medlin, who was preparing for her sold-out Truth in Olive Oil Tasting Seminar Monday, Oct. 6, poured another glug of green oil into a tiny cup. This one, a variety called Tuscan made by the Oregon Olive Mill in Dayton, Ore., was much more pungent on the nose, with a grassy bitterness on the palate. It was far more vibrant and fresh tasting than any olive oils I've found on store shelves.

That's precisely what Medlin and the Treasure Valley Food Coalition are hoping to teach consumers through their tasting seminar: The difference between good and bad olive oil.

"We had been thinking a lot about food fraud because there's so much of it. ... The definition of fraud is that somebody does something for economic gain based on consumer ignorance," Medlin said.

Olive oil is a particularly fraudulent commodity. Much of the olive oil sold as Italian extra virgin olive oil in fact comes from countries like Spain, Morocco and Tunisia. The oil is imported to Italy and bottled there, where it receives the label "packed in Italy" or "imported from Italy." According to The New York Times, some refineries even cut olive oil with cheaper oils, while others "mix vegetable oils with beta carotene, to disguise the flavor, and add chlorophyll for coloring, to produce fake olive oil."

"Americans don't really know the difference and they think they're getting something that they're not," said Medlin. "Now that we've made such a deal of the health component of extra virgin olive oil ... I think it's important that you know."

So does Tom Mueller, author of the book Extra Virginity: The Sublime and Scandalous World of Olive Oil. On his blog, Truth in Olive Oil, Mueller lists a few key concepts for buying good olive oil:

"Olives are stone fruits, like cherries and plums," he writes. "So real extra virgin olive oil is fresh-squeezed fruit juice--seasonal, perishable and never better than the first few weeks it was made."

To make sure you're buying a good bottle of olive oil, Mueller recommends avoiding low-priced oil--typically anything under $10 a liter.

"To ensure freshness, look for bottles with a 'best by' date, or better still a date of harvest," writes Mueller. "Try to buy oils only from this year's harvest. 'Best by' dates are usually two years from the time an oil was bottled, so if you see a date that is two years away, the oil is more likely to be fresh."

But Mueller said other terms commonly printed on olive oil bottles can be misleading.

"Take the terms 'first pressed' and 'cold pressed,' for example," writes Mueller. "Since most extra virgin oil nowadays is made with centrifuges, it isn't 'pressed' at all, and all true extra virgin comes exclusively from the first pressing of the olive paste. EU regulations state that 'cold pressed' can be used only when the olive paste is kept at or below 27 degrees Celsius during the malaxing [mixing] process--a level respected by nearly all serious producers--and when the oil is actually extracted with a press, not a centrifuge."

Sound confusing? That's why organizations like the California Olive Oil Council have developed certification programs to provide consumer protection. To get a seal from the COOC, California producers must first submit a lab analysis of their olive oil that indicates the handling and storage of their olives and oil. Then, the oil must also pass a COOC blind taste-test to ensure that it's free of defects, which can indicate the use of poor quality olives, or problems during milling or storage.

Representatives from the COOC will be on hand at the Treasure Valley Food Coalition's Truth in Olive Oil Tasting Seminar Monday, Oct. 6. Not only will they bring a number of certified California extra virgin olive oils to sample, but they'll also pair those oils with food from Three Girls Catering and wine samples from Three Horse Ranch. Olive oil producer Dewey Lucero, whom Medlin referred to as "eternally adorable and a wonderful speaker," is also coming to speak at the event. Medlin is particularly excited to pair Lucero's extra virgin olive oil with Idaho's Cloverleaf vanilla ice cream and a sprinkle of red and black Hawaiian sea salt.

There's a second, more industrial component to the TVFC's olive oil extravaganza. The nonprofit is also hosting a seminar Tuesday, Oct. 7, from 2-4 p.m. at The Modern Hotel and Bar geared toward the food industry.

"I'm interested in seeing what we can offer the food community--the restaurants, the institutional people who are always struggling with olive oil because it's rarely fresh," said Medlin. "That's where all the conversations about local oils are going to come in. Where do we get them? How much is it going to cost? What's the distribution going to look like?"

Ultimately, the Treasure Valley Food Coalition is interested in promoting a vibrant local food economy in the Treasure Valley. Linking up local businesses with reputable regional suppliers of extra virgin olive oil is a step in that direction.

"It's a gateway. Just like tomatoes were a gateway to thinking about produce in general, to me, olive oil is a gateway to thinking about how and why things are fraudulent," said Medlin. "We always say the longer the supply chain and the further away it comes from, the more opportunities to debase the product."