Hannukah-revelers Beware - Your Olive Oil May Not Be as Pure as You Think

Uzi Silber
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Uzi Silber

What better time than Hanukkah to advise olive oil aficionados to beware: that bottle of extra virgin olive oil may not be as pristine as labeled.

On 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 Australia (kosher) Olive Oil, the arduous manufacturing process of EVOO is as much science as art; 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.

The EU instituted its standards to confront a continental olive oil industry that was notoriously rife with fraud. In a 2007 article for The New Yorker, Tom Mueller exposed the scandal of olive oil adulteration in Italy, where some brands marketed as EVOO supposedly made from olives harvested and pressed in Italy actually contained concoctions of lower grade Turkish or Tunisian olive oil blended with cheap corn, soybean, canola, peanut, cottonseed or hazelnut oils.

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.

Aside from criminality, adulteration represents a very real public health hazard: the nutty oils blended into the faux EVOO are a danger to those with nut allergies, while potentially poisonous contaminants could actually harm and even kill people as they have in Europe.

There's also another often overlooked issue: extraneous ingredients could render these fakes verboten for followers of kosher 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.

Phony oil can also find its way to high-end marketers, where large price discrepancies can raise suspicions. For example, one prominent retailer in the area recently displayed two brands of EVOO -- an Italian import for over $15 a liter and a house label priced at an eye popping $5. Is this a problem? Could be.

So how to ensure -- particularly on Hanukkah -- that an 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.

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