Monday, March 15, 2010

Olive oil fraud AGAIN

Monday, March 15, 2010

Just how pure is that extra-virgin olive oil in your kitchen?
As worldwide demand for the gourmand goodie grows, fraud has become rampant

Susan Semenak, Canwest News Service

Its flavour and health benefits have made extra-virgin olive oil a fast-growing commodity and an essential ingredient for chefs and home cooks everywhere.

About 2.7 million tonnes of olive oil are produced every year, most of them in Spain, Italy, Greece and Portugal but also in Tunisia, Morocco, Australia, South Africa and California.

On Canadian store shelves, there are more than 100 different olive oils, some selling for as much as $50 a litre, compared with canola at $2 a litre and corn oil at $3 a litre.

But how do you know what you're getting for your money?

As worldwide demand grows, olive oil fraud has become rampant. Well-known Italian olive oil producers have been found guilty of importing lesser-quality olive oil from North Africa and elsewhere, relabelling and pricing it as a high-quality extra-virgin Italian product.

Here at home, several Canadian importers have been fined for blending small amounts of olive oil with cheaper refined oils and vegetable oils and then slapping on labels that read "extra virgin" olive oil, making off with a tidy profit while cheating the consumer out of the heart-health benefits and distinctive flavour and quality they thought they were getting.

Critics say weak Canadian food labelling regulations and inadequate enforcement of those laws by federal government inspectors make buying a bottle of what Homer called "liquid gold" a tricky undertaking.

"Olive oil is a commodity that can easily be diluted or substituted with cheaper oil," wrote Marilyn Taylor, a spokesman for the Canadian Food Inspection Agency in a bulletin from the agency last July. "The presence of other oils in olive oil cannot be detected by visual inspection and therefore consumers rely on the labelling."

Under the federal Food and Drugs Act, all food products sold in Canada are subject to labelling requirements. Products that are labelled and marketed as extra-virgin olive oil must be cold pressed and made wholly from "oil obtained from the fruit of the olive tree (Olea europea L)" in accordance with standards set by the International Olive Oil Council, the intergovernmental organization based in Madrid, Spain, that promotes olive oil, tracks production, defines quality standards and monitors authenticity.

To be certified as extra virgin, each batch of olive oil must pass chemical and physical analyses in its country of origin. These measure fat content and acidity levels. There are also organoleptic tests by panels of experts who gauge colour, taste, aroma, "mouthfeel," and that particular piquant feeling olive oil leaves at the back of the mouth. Olive oils that do not meet this battery of criteria must settle for terms such as virgin, pure, pomace or refined olive oil -- but not extra virgin.

Still, there are plenty of impostors.

Last year, three Canadian importers and distributors of olive oil were convicted under the Canada Food and Drug Act.

In May, the Toronto-based importer and distributor Jan K. Overweel Ltd., which markets the Emma, Casa Italia and Cortina Foods brands and other imported products, was fined $40,000 and ordered to dispose of more than 27,000 litres of seized olive oil that was labelled extra-virgin olive oil but found to be 50% sunflower oil.

Last July, Eddie Zilli, president of Santa Maria Foods of Toronto, which markets Mastro olive oil and other products, was convicted of three offences under the Food and Drugs Act.

The judge ordered Zilli to pay a total fine of $150,000 and ordered 47,400 litres of seized oil to be disposed of.

The Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) reported that Zilli unlawfully imported oil labelled as extra-virgin olive oil that was, in fact, blended oil containing approximately 50% sunflower oil. The offences occurred between January and April 2006.

Two complaints by consumers about bottles labeled as 100% pure extra-virgin olive oil at a supermarket in Toronto led to a conviction in September, resulting in a $7,500 fine for Italian Products Distribution Inc. Inspectors seized 400 bottles of oil, sent samples to a lab for analysis and found that they contained "a high concentration" of sunflower and/or soybean oils.

But with 2,200 food inspectors working across Canada overseeing imported food as well as monitoring a wide gamut of food products in processing plants, at border crossings and at supermarkets, warehouses and ports, a lot of illegal activity is bound to go undetected, experts say.

"Where there's the opportunity for economic gain, there will be those trying to make a buck," says Ben Roffey, the CFIA's acting manager of compliance, in a telephone interview.

"We can't test every bottle of olive oil that comes into Canada."

The CFIA reported that, in 2007, 15 of 45 samples of extra-virgin olive oil pulled from Canadian store shelves and tested in the agency's laboratory in Ottawa over the previous year had been adulterated. The bottles labelled as extra-virgin olive oil were found to have been blended with lower-priced sunflower or canola or soybean oils, or with lesser-quality oil extracted using heat or chemical solvents from olive pomace, the by-product of olive oil's first pressing. (A similar sampling of 49 olive oils conducted five years earlier netted only two adulterated cases.)

CFIA spokesman Guy Gravelle says the agency has "taken action" on 19 complaints about olive oil received from consumers and competitors since January 2008. In those cases, importers or retailers were required to present certificates of authenticity, or change their labeling. In some cases, the importers were issued warning letters, in others the olive oil was ordered recalled from store shelves and in other cases, fines were levied.

Gravelle said new extra-virgin olive oils on the market as well as those that seem "unreasonably inexpensive," or those from countries where drought or other environmental factors are known to have hindered recent harvests are prime targets for investigators. So are those from importers with a previous history of breaking the law.

Limited as the resources are, Roffey says Canada's system is still better than most countries. It acts as a deterrent to would-be fraudsters, he says. And its lab in Ottawa is the only one in North America accredited by the International Olive Oil Council to conduct in-depth analyses of suspicious oils.

But olive oil aficionados suspect the fraud is rampant.

The words extra virgin on a bottle of oil can allow the producer to hike the price tenfold, and that's a big attraction to people looking to make a quick buck, says Claudia Pharand, co-owner with Daniele Beauchamp of the Olive & Olives chain of four Montreal boutiques selling high-end olive oil, mostly from Spain.

Pharand, who has studied with Spanish chemists specializing in olive oil, was enlisted last year to work as an expert consultant with Canada Border Service agents investigating a shipment of suspicious olive oil seized at the port of Montreal. (The CFIA, which works with border service authorities, refused to comment on the ongoing investigation.)

"But extra-virgin olive oil is imported. It's pure fruit juice and it's expensive to harvest and to produce. You can't get it for $4.99 a bottle. It's just not possible," she says. "People who say they want cheap olive oil should know that what they are buying is almost certainly not extra-virgin olive oil."

IGA, though, sells extra-virgin olive oil for as little as $8.79 a litre under its house brand, Compliments. It's not artisanal, but it's authentic, says Anne-Hélène Lavoie, a spokesperson for Sobeys Quebec Inc., the national grocery chain that owns Quebec's IGA supermarkets.

The chain buys all its extra-virgin olive oil from Italy, where it is also bottled, in a factory accredited by the Italian government and an Italian olive oil producers' association.

Sobeys also pays an independent laboratory to conduct surprise visits and take random samplings of oil at the bottling factory.

"As with wine, there are many different vintages at many different price points," Lavoie said in an interview this week. "We are able to keep prices down because we don't work with a middle man, and we buy in large volume."

Montreal chef Graziella Battista loves the way extra-virgin olive oil so perfectly dresses a salad of mixed greens, pine nuts and shaved Parmesan cheese, how it enhances the flavour of a slow-simmered ragu and makes pan-seared scallops glisten.

Battista, whose Old Montreal restaurant, named Graziella, serves rustic but elegant northern Italian fare, goes through gallons and gallons of extra-virgin olive oil in a week.

"There's not a dish that goes out of my kitchen that wasn't cooked or tossed or drizzled with olive oil," she says.

Recently, Battista was invited by a Quebec consumer magazine to be part of an expert panel that spent four days tasting nearly four dozen extra-virgin olive oils sold in local grocery stores. Battista says some of the samples were nicely flavoured, while others tasted downright nasty.

"It was a real eye-opener. There are so many products on store shelves that people shouldn't be buying," she said in an interview.

Several of the oils exhibited a sharp, unpleasant metallic taste. Others smelled and tasted "old and rancid."

"It was as if they were expired, or something had gone wrong in the processing," she said. "And with others, you could tell right away that they were not pure olive oil. They had been blended.

"It made me realize that the labels don't always tell the truth."

Olive oil fraud is a concern around the world.

A 2007 report by RAI, the Italian television broadcaster, tracked a shipment of chemically refined low-grade olive pomace oil produced in Turkey. Mysteriously, when the oil left the Turkish port, en route to Italy, it bore extra-virgin certification.

In March 2007, in what was dubbed Operation Golden Oil, Italian authorities tested oils from more than 757 olive oil producers and found that more than 200 of them were blending their oil. Two dozen arrests were made and 85 farms were confiscated. The investigations revealed a large-scale scheme to relabel oils from other nations as Italian oil.

Another operation a month later brought 40 more arrests in northern and southern Italy. The suspects were found to be adding chlorophyll, the green pigment from plants, to otherwise colourless sunflower and soyabean oils and selling it as extra-virgin olive oil, both in Italy and abroad. More than 25,000 bottles of the falsely labelled blended oil were seized and ordered destroyed. The extensive fraud prompted the Italian government to introduce labelling laws that require bottlers to declare the olive farm's address and the country of origin of the olives on each label.

And last July, the European Union toughened up its rules, making origin labelling compulsory for virgin and extra-virgin olive oil.

Finding a fraud requires real sleuth work. Even among authentic extra-virgin olive oils there are wide variations in colour, taste and aroma, depending on where the olives grew, when they were harvested and even the weather that year.

Stan Bacler has been dubbed Canada's "olive-oil detective." He's the national manager for the CFIA's food chemistry laboratory program. For decades, he worked as head chemist in the agency's fats and oils labs, looking for clues to olive-oil adulteration.

It can take six weeks to run one series of tests, at a cost of about $1,100. In one test, chemists beam ultraviolet light at the oil. In another, they identify fatty acids by separating them from the oil. Bacler, reached in Ottawa, says his labs can't handle more than about 100 samples a year.

Scientists have an arsenal of sophisticated new tests at their disposal to spot fakes. But it's a constant battle to stay ahead of unscrupulous manufacturers developing new ways to conceal their fraud, Bacler says.

Sunflower oils from genetically modified plants, for example, are extremely hard to spot. And many vegetable oils are now modified to look and taste like olive oil, with a chemical composition closer to olive oil. That makes them harder to detect in an illicit blend.

This was sent to us from a reader.