A study recently released by researchers at the University of California found that some olive oils labeled “extra virgin” are anything but: more than half of the imported oils tested in the study failed to meet international quality standards for extra virgin olive oil. Some of the oils had been degraded by improper storage or processing; others appeared to have been deliberately adulterated with cheaper, lower quality grades of olive oil.
U.S. olive oil producers have often complained that the USDA’s standards for olive oil are weak and confusing compared to olive oil standards elsewhere in the world. In countries like Italy, Germany and Australia, food labeling laws dictate that olive oil can only bear the sought-after “extra virgin” label if the oil meets certain taste and clarity standards, and was mechanically or manually pressed from high quality fresh olives, without the use of chemical extraction.
But up until recently, the USDA had in fact set no standard legal definition for the term “extra virgin olive oil.” This means that under federal law it was actually legal for olive oil producers to mix lower grade olive oils into oil labled “extra virgin.” As a result, olive oil producers around the world have been sending their lowest quality oils to the United States for years. And producers of true extra virgin olive oil have not been able to adequately distinguish their high quality products from lower quality competitors.
More disturbingly, over the past several years, food inspectors have repeatedly discovered so-called “olive oils,” labeled as 100% olive oil, that had been apparently deliberately mixed with entirely other, cheaper types of oil, such as soybean oil, sunflower seed oil, hazelnut oil or peanut oil. Mislabled mixed cooking oils can, of course, be very dangerous to people with severe food allergies.
In 2005, the California Olive Oil Council (COOC) filed a petition encouraging the USDA to adopt stricter standards for the production and labeling of olive oil. This year, the USDA finally responded with a new set of olive oil labeling standards, set to go into effect this October.
But some food safety experts argue the new USDA olive oil guidelines will not be enough to stop olive oil fraudsters because the standards are basically voluntary. University of California farm advisor Paul Vossen told the L.A. Times, “It’s like saying you have to stop at stop signs, but there are no cops at the corner. Standards are a good start, but enforcement is important.”
However, those olive oil producers who do adhere to USDA standards (and submit to USDA testing) will be granted the right to put a federal seal of approval on their olive oil labels, while those who fail to comply will not be allowed to use the seal. So, after October, when shopping for extra virgin olive oil, look for a USDA seal of approval on the bottle if you want to be sure you are getting the real deal.
Image from Wikimedia Commons. Public domain.