Wednesday, 18 January 2012

Stains in the extra virgin olive oil industry (Λαδολαδιές)

Buy peanuts, get peanuts.

Since the Telegraph's revelations about Italian olive oil not being Italian (something Greeks had known about it for a long time), there's been a flurry of reports about fraudulent practices in the olive oil trade. A book was published just last month about this very topic by a an American olive oil expert. Immediately following the Telegraph article, the Guardian published their own report as well as an article giving tips on how to buy genuine EVOO (extra virgin olive oil) - apparently, the UK is the world's 10th largest consumer of the product.

Prices of olive oil at INKA supermarket, Hania

What makes an olive oil 'extra virgin' is its acidity level, and nothing else (it cannot be more than 0.8%). To be fair, extra virgin olive oil doesn't have to be a single unmixed variety to be of the highest qauality. It also doesn't have to be made of hand-picked olives. The olives used to make the oil do not need to grow in one specific area for the best taste (this is up to the individual), nor do they have to be cold-pressed (a little bit of heat treatment won't destroy the quality). Extra-virgin olive oil (EVOO) produced by artisans will not necessarily taste better than mass-produced extra virgin olive oil, nor does it have to be very expensive to be very high quality. Any Greek - and probably Italian, or Spaniard, since they live in the three most prolific producer countries of EVOO - can tell you this. The fradulent practices of the biggest exporter of olive oil in the world concern mainly the labelling of EVOO: all exported olive oil being sold in import coutnries seems to be EVOO.

The scandal involved in the olive oil trade is not just the lower quality of EVOO that is being sold using misleading - but legally permissible - terminology (technically, even non-EVOOs can be EVOO, if you can understand that); it has to do, to a great extent, with the profits being made by those in the business. In brief, EVOO-labelled olive oil (of dubious EVOO quality) is being exported to lucrative markets and sold at cheap prices. This practice places a squeeze on the producers of the more 'genuine' EVOO, who sell at much higher prices. But if all EVOO is being labelled in similar ways with only a price difference involved, then how does the consumer choose? With his/her wallet, of course.

Different grades of olive oil are also available in Hania, to suit all pockets, even pomace olive oil.
The standard practice of mixing olive oils from different countries seems to be a new one to the uninitiated, ie non-producing countries with very high imports of the product, like the UK and USA. These two countries use terms like 'olive oil' and 'extra virgin' differently; in other words, they're playing with words for profiteering purposes. Higher income levels in such countries allow consumers to pay any price that suits their pocket: this entails paying a higher-than-average price for a perceived quality according to the wording on the label. But if that perceived quality is not in fact as high as the consumer believed at the time of purchase, due to false or misleading labelling, then the consumer is being duped, which creates the scandal: in societies with a high level of transparency, this amounts to fraud. Making informed choices about which olive oil to buy is also a big problem in an information-overloaded society. The subject matter is often misreported, and the advice given is sometimes not always possible to put into practice (like taste tests).

It's easy to ignore all the facts when money rules. In a world where unemployment is growing, incomes are falling and prices are rising, the choice of which product to buy between two same/similar products sitting on the shelf side-by-side with different prices is an obvious one. To a certain extent, we are all price-conscious. What motivates us to make choices that do not depend solely on our income levels depends on our knowledge, educational level, nationality and personal preference, to name just a few of the many and varied factors that dominate our thinking. Given that I belong to the world's highest EVOO-consuming group, and the world's greatest producer of EVOO, I could never take just price into consideration without checking the designation of my olive oil's origin. If I lived close to Greece (eg somewhere in Europe), I'd be filling my suitcases with bottles of the family's supplies of olive oil (like I do now for other family members). If I lived in another continent, I might consider import my family's olive oil supplies, without giving too much consideration to the cost (like many Greek-Americans).

Most Greeks who buy olive oil (ie they have access to their own production) use a different olive oil for frying/cooking and another kind for salad dressings or dipping bread.

The UK is the world's tenth largest consumer of the product. But all her supplies must be imported, since she's a non-producer country. It can be said of the British that they are a largely well-informed society that takes food labelling seriously. Wording such as the following, however, misinforms Brits about the true situation:
"With the global appetite for olive oil on the increase, unscrupulous producers are meeting the demand by mixing in cheaper oil from Greece, Spain, Morocco and Tunisia and passing it off as top-end extra virgin oil." 
For a start, 'cheaper oil from Greece' implies 'lower-quality oil': But Greece's olive oil production is 80% extra virgin - almost double Italy's (the second biggest EVOO producer)! For the same reason, the implication that it isn't 'extra virgin' is probably also misleading. 

Two years ago, the Telegraph published a report claiming that aggressive-discount supermarkets LIDL and ALDI olive oil is superior to the olive oil sold by M&S, according to expert testers:
"In a study of 12 standard extra virgin olive oils available in supermarkets conducted by Which?, the consumer watchdog, oils from Marks & Spencer, Carapelli, Bertolli, Sainsbury's and Felippo Berio were all trumped by Aldi and Lidl's versions.
Both cost just £2.49 for a 750ml bottle, considerably cheaper than all its rivals and nearly £4 a bottle cheaper than some." (The Telegraph, 20 July 2009)
Coincidentally, in Greece, M&S is known only as a clothes store. The Independent then followed suit, publishing a report with the headline: Want the best olive oil? Then save yourself some money:
"Want the best olive oil? You can buy the tastiest extra-virgin for half the price in budget supermarkets, according to Which?" (The Independent, 23 July 2009)
Apparently, the cheapest olive oils (and just look at the prices, even just three years ago!!!) are winning the 'best olive oil' award. Which? is, apparently, a highly respected consumer organisation, making checks on quality and competitive pricing. Interestingly, no one commented on the articles. Such an uninteresting issue?

Our own supply of extra virgin olive oil takes on a different hue depending on the light conditions (clockwise starting from top left: the same olive oil goes from green to gold to yellow to amber).

Just six months ago, Which? conducted more blind testing of olive oils from major supermarkets. Its general report was entitled: "The best oil is not always the most expensive":
"Napolina extra virgin olive oil has come out on top in a Which? taste test of olive oils from supermarkets and big brands. But the results proved that the most expensive extra virgin olive oil is not always the best. Which? experts rated the standard Napolina higher than Napolina Special Selection, despite it being nearly £2 cheaper. Napolina was the only olive oil to achieve a Best Buy, but Aldi's EVOO Extra Virgin olive oil also impressed the panel, gaining the second-highest score in the test." (Which? 24 June 2011)
Well, who could argue with that?! Which? reporter Matt Clear tells us that in the UK, you can buy 'good' cheap olive oil from the supermarket:
"We Brits consume 28 million litres of olive oil a year, so we could definitely save a fair bit by going for cheaper offerings, without compromising on taste." (Which? 30 June 2011)
Seriously?! What a load of cobwash, as one of the readers pointed out:
"I would assume that people who enjoy olive oil and similar products are likely to be willing to look a little further than an edge-of-town supermarket... I’ve regularly bought 5 litre cans ... @ £45 per 5 litres. Could I do better?"
Matt Clear's response to this very comment says it all:
"If it helps, the experts felt that the standard of the olive oils on test was generally not that high, and even the Best Buy would not match up to a good estate-bottled oil."
Buy peanuts, get peanuts. At the same time, it's not difficult to find a genuine EVOO. The Guardian gives some advice aiming to ensure higher quality for the consumer "in a market where labels on olive oil bottles simply don’t indicate the quality of the oil inside, and where trust in a person, a brand, a store, or an institution is the only way to ensure you’re getting excellent oil."

Our pockets will always rule our spending, but we don't need to be brainwashed by the major players who simply want to keep making a profit, going to the extremes of redefining even the term 'olive oil':
"The term 'olive oil' doesn't just mean the juice pressed from olives, but denotes a heavily refined concoction of low-grade oils which, like pomace oils, have been deodorised, deacidified, degummed, and the rest. Where 'extra virgin olive oil' which actually IS olive juice, sounds vaguely unnatural, as though it has been processed. Where high-sounding terms like 'pure' and 'light' mean oils that have been stripped of nearly all of their sensory and health benefits. A business whose laws and regulations have been written for (and frequently by) olive oil industrialists, rarely with the interests of olive farmers or honest extra-virgin producers in mind. Much less of consumers."
As discussed in an earlier post about olive oil, people are constantly becoming better informed about the oily EVOO business with the very fast spread of web-based information, as can be seen from the comments sections in all the following articles:

It's just a matter of time before the controls tighten on the EVOO term. And in all fairness, not all EVOO sold at LIDL is the same: what is being sold in Hania is probably very good stuff. It's locally produced (in the Hania region itself), and is sold in small and large containers. A 5-litre canister will set you back by 18-20 euro, which is quite a good price for very high quality EVOO. But if you feel you can't can't spend that much*, there's also a cheaper variety available too, even in the Hania LIDL stores: a 5-litre canister will cost you only 15 euro and it's still Greek - but it's not Cretan...

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When olive oil is over-used in a home kitchen (like ours), it's inevitable that your clothes will get stained by it. If you're close to a kitchen, dab a little dishwashing liquid on the stain and rub slightly; this will ensure that the stain will be removed in the next wash. This method works well if you notice the stain immediately, but don't despair if you do not: in thise case, you need to rub a little βενζινη καθαρισμου into it. Your clothes will then smell a little as if they came out of a dry cleaner's, but again, in the next wash, the stain (and smell) will disappear.

*Pomace olive oil is also sold at the Hania LIDL stores at a much cheaper price - no imported olive oil is found there. 

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