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Extra Virgin? Buyer Beware…..
In the next few years the time will come when you are strolling the streets of Toronto and a shady figure in the shadows calls to you from a dark alley.
“I’ve got olive oil. The good stuff. You looking to buy?”
All the while his eyes dart side-to-side looking for under covers. You smile and politely refuse as you make your way to Enoteca Sociale for a gourmet meal drizzled with the good stuff. The Real Extra Virgin Olive Oil.
For years, 11 to be exact, the Tramonti family has been educating the public about olive oil. Not just any olive oil either. This one hits home. It’s in their roots with ties to Vincenzo Tramonti’s family and hometown in San Giorgio Morgeto in southern Italy. It’s been an uphill battle teaching the public how to read the label, taste the difference, understand supply and demand and expose the rampant fraud happening all over the world but we’re finally making headway. It hasn’t all been our blood, sweat and tears though….many other legit producers, distributors and food lovers have spent time and money of their own spreading the olive oil word. One of these people is Tom Mueller, author of Extra Virginity – The Sublime and Scandalous World of Olive Oil.
For Christmas this year, Angelo gave Andrea and I a copy of the book and I just finished it (I know two months is a long time but I’m not much of a nonfiction reader…). Even though I’ve been on the ‘real olive oil’ bandwagon for quite a few years already this book was an eye opener. I am always skeptical of documentaries and do take them with a grain of salt…but this one was different for me. Probably because I have seen the struggles for the legit producers Tom describes in the book first hand.
This book is written with heartwarming stories of hardworking individuals intertwined with facts, court proceedings and findings from various studies and panel tests. Tom made visits to the well-known supermarket brands such as Bertoli and described the conditions of the plants they were making oil in as not fit for human consumption.
The thing I found most incredible though was that much of the extra-virgin Italian oil sold in North America is not extra-virgin, a surprisingly large amount of it is not Italian, and sometimes it isn’t even olive oil. This is absolutely crazy to me! How can the Food & Drug Administration and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency allow this to happen? Is it not against the law to sell something with a label saying it is one thing when the product inside is something else?
According to the CFIA website “Olive oil is a commodity that can easily be diluted or substituted with cheaper oil. The presence of other oils in olive oil cannot be detected by visual inspection and therefore consumers rely on the labeling. Health conscious consumers purchase extra virgin olive oil for the health benefits they believe are associated with the product.”
However, in 2009 Jan K. Overweel (distributor of Emma brand Olive Oil) was fined $40,000 for unlawfully importing extra virgin olive oil that was blended with 50% sunflower oil. (This is the equivalent of taking a penny from Bill Gates.)
The imported oil did not meet the prescribed standard for olive oil, set out in Food and Drugs Regulation B.09.003[S], which requires among other things, that olive oil “shall be the oil obtained from the fruit of the olive tree.” Um duh?
Buckle up; it’s gets even crazier. As a Canadian consumer I expect the CFIA to test the products that we are eating but according to their website “Although the CFIA has an on-going olive oil testing program, the Canadian olive oil industry is encouraged to increase its own testing efforts. The CFIA requests industry’s assistance to ensure that Canadian regulatory requirements are complied with and that consumers are protected from misrepresentation.” I’m laughing out loud right now. THEY WANT THE CRIMINALS TO POLICE THEMSELVES.
You may be asking yourself “What real harm can labeling something incorrectly do if it’s still a food product?” Plenty.
- Harmful to the hardworking producers. Extra virgin is derived from the first extraction of the early harvest olives therefore limiting the quantity available. This means it is the most expensive grade of oil. Subsequent extractions of the olive result in lower grade oils and the more extractions you do the harder it is to get any oil. This means chemicals and heat are used. These lower grade oils are worth much less money so cutting your Extra Virgin with their lampante (lamp oil – yes, I said lamp oil) means a much bigger profit margin for the big companies and bankruptcy for the honest folk.
- Harmful to the health of the Canadian consumer. To help make profits even bigger, large companies are cutting Extra Virgin with seed and nut oils or less expensive olive oil (lampante or virgin) or just using seed and nut oils and mislabeling it. Yes, I said nut oils. This includes hazelnut, walnut and PEANUT. Allergies anyone?
- Harmful to the health of the Canadian consumer. Extra virgin olive oil is full of health benefits. The biggest being the decrease in risk of heart disease. When you think you are buying the real stuff you think you are eating healthy! What you are really buying can be harmful to your health! In 1981, 20,000 people were seriously harmed after ingesting poison, fraudulently labeled as olive oil. 300 of them died.
I don’t like being lied to. To me plausible deniability is not the moral equivalent of the absolute truth.
So what do you do about it? Join the slow food movement. Start caring about what you are putting in your mouth. Be a whistle blower. Learn from the experts. Ask questions. Taste before buying. Visit the grove where the olives come from.
Unfortunately, it really comes back to caveat emptor (let the buyer beware) in the olive oil industry. It’s time for this to change. It’s not going to happen overnight and it’s going to take YOU to help make the change.
Visit www.extravirginity.com for more information or contact us to attend one of our upcoming events to learn more.