We investigate the olive oil ‘scandal’

by Lawrence Frohn, September 22, 2017

This month, we’re throwing the spotlight on recent reports that one third of all olive oils currently sold in the UK are ‘adulterated or breach quality standards’. What does it all mean, and how can you avoid buying sub-par cooking oils?

The story in Italy

We first came across the olive oil scandal on the Channel 4 programme, Food Unwrapped. If you haven’t seen it before, it’s a fascinating insight into the food industry, and this particular episode delved into the world of extra virgin olive oil.

According to the programme, extra virgin olive oil is produced by picking olives by hand, and cold-pressing them within 24 hours to reduce acidity – a more expensive process but both the taste and the nutritional quality are superb as a result.  Regular olive oil is made with older, more acidic olives, which is why it’s usually cheaper.

In Italy, extra virgin oils are being policed by specially trained teams, as there’s been a surge in adulterated olive oils. In many cases, oil is shipped in from other countries, then re-labelled and re-exported as authentic Italian extra virgin olive oil. To combat the problem, the authorities have been trained to spot substandard olive oil through taste and smell tests.

In the programme, six bottles are brought in from Britain to be tested by the experienced Italian team. Although all of the bottles of extra virgin olive oil passed UK chemical tests, only three passed the strict sensory test in Italy.

So what’s going on?

Then came the Times article, which reported that following tests by the Rural Payments Agency:

  • One third of 131 olive oil samples, including extra virgin olive oil, virgin olive oil and blended olive oil, breached quality standards.
  • Some were likely blended with other cheaper oils (i.e. adulterated), while others were stored incorrectly

Europol has warned that olive oil is a ‘high risk’ for falsification and, in March, Italian authorities seized more than 20 tons of olive oil from Greece and southern Italy, which was being mis-sold as Tuscan extra virgin olive oil. Many believe that droughts and disease have pushed up the prices of olive oil, which has also incentivised fraud.

So why is this not being reported fully in the UK? We wanted to look into the issue further, so we spoke with the government’s Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board to find out more about what’s going on.

From our discussions, we learned that according to EU rules, malpractices with olive oil are not allowed to be publicised as it would disadvantage one product in favour of others. Frankly, in our opinion, this is not good enough, the criminals that are trying to make a short term profit from these rising prices are damaging the good reputation of the olive oil industry.   The public should be made aware that the EU and British governments are working hard to identify and prevent these criminals adulterating our food.  

Our advice to consumers

First, it’s time to check your preferred brand of olive oil. While there’s no doubt that high quality, cold pressed extra virgin olive oil is delicious, buying brands of olive oil that have been adulterated or are of poor quality mean that you as the consumer are being short-changed and sadly the practice will only continue.

You could also try some other oils as well;

Cold pressed rapeseed oil is not only healthier for you than olive oil, but it’s also more versatile, and has not been found to be substandard or adulterated. When you buy a bottle of Hillfarm 100% cold-pressed rapeseed oil, you know exactly what you’re getting – an oil that has been grown, pressed and bottled on one British family farm.

Also, by buying oil produced in the UK, you’re showing your much-appreciated support of the British Farming Industry. In fact, we’ve just celebrated Red Tractor Week, so this is a great time to champion responsibly produced, fully traceable homegrown products!

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