Crimes Against Olive Oil

Italian Olive Oils

A selection of some of our Italian olive oils — left to right: Raineri Unfiltered, Salustri Olivastra, Madonna Antonia, Podere San Biagio, and La Bandiera

The other night, while having dinner with a friend, she said “I’m not buying Italian olive oil anymore because of all the fraud – I just can’t trust it.” and my head just about exploded.

I can’t really blame her for this baby and bathwater approach. Recent press implicates Italy as the center of fraudulent olive oil activity and in many cases, paints a broad picture without distinction between the good and the bad producers. Without clear direction, how can consumers be expected to filter through what’s on the grocery shelves? It certainly seems easier to stick to olive oil from other countries.

Easier, maybe but I suspect the Italians have not cornered the market on olive oil fraud and that similar problems affect other olive oil producing countries as well. So buying a bottle of Greek or Spanish olive oil is no guarantee of authenticity or quality.

On this same subject, I was recently speaking with a customer about harvest dates, lot numbers and “best before” dates, all of which play an important role in sharing information about the oil inside the bottle. He was insistent that harvest date is the most important way to determine the authenticity of an olive oil. Playing devil’s advocate, I suggested that if a producer wanted to be fraudulent, they wouldn’t think twice about misinformation on their labels.

There is a lot of trust that goes into buying food these days. This is at least one of the reasons for the fantastic boom in the local food movement, and in farmer’s markets and CSAs in particular. In New England, we don’t have the luxury of a local olive oil producer, so we depend on an honest supply chain to give us the quality we believe we are buying.

In the typical olive oil supply chain, customers depend on grocers such as Formaggio Kitchen, grocers depend on distributors, distributors depend on importers, and importers depend on producers (and to get really nitty-gritty about it, producers can sometimes depend on growers and their mills).

My suggestion to my friend was simple – find a grocer you trust – someone who knows the harvest dates of their oils, knows each producer and allows you to taste the oil. Talk with the grocer to discover the oils with the fewest links in the supply chain.

Short of helping pick the olives and watching them go from press to bottle, there is no 100% certainty in olive oil authenticity. However, rest assured there is a wonderful world of excellent olive oil out there, and with a good grocer and a bit of trust, you can enjoy your Italian, Spanish, French, Californian or Greek olive oils without fear of fraud.

Tim Bucciarelli oversees general operations at Formaggio Kitchen Cambridge and manages Formaggio Kitchen Online.