Wednesday, 4 January 2012

Stolen heritage (Κλεμμένη κληρονομιά)

"A news story has revealed that four out of every five bottles of Italian oil has been adulterated with olive oil imported from other countries. However, countries such as Greece, which export their oil to Italy, have long known of the practice." Indeed, Greece has long known about this practice. In fact, Greece (as a country) prefers things to be this way:
"Italian oil is mixed with cheaper oils that do not yield as many euros from the olive press, due to the smaller import demand of high quality virgin oils from other nations such as Greece, which is less adept at marketing its own oil. Greek olive oil is bought by unscrupulous Italian producers and mixed with their own. Greek presses are notable for only pressing the olives once and exporting the residue."
Greece (not Italy) produces the best olive oil in the world. Italy (never Greece) needs to import quantities of the product she exports. As soon as Greece produces the best olive oil in the world, she quickly finds a buyer for it (her neighbour, the third largest economy in Europe and the 8th largest in the world). Pocketing the money, she pats herself on the back and then rests until the following olive season, when the process is repeated. So it's a Greek problem too; the way Greece rests on her laurels without searching for new ways to continue to market or brand herself, as Peter Economides says, has actually helped the situation. 

Picture: Peter Economides
Through my proof-reading work at Mediterranean Agronomic Institute of  Chania (MAICh), I've been reading papers/reports/Master's theses for the last ten years showing the extent of olive oil adulteration, the adulteration that takes place in the olive oil industry with other oils from other countries, and the most recent laboratory tests for olive oil adulteration. The latter takes two forms: checking whether olive oil has been adulterated with other oils (eg mixing olive oil with hazelnut oil which has virtually the same DNA), and checking if olive oil has been mixed with lower quality olive oils (eg mixing Italian olive oil with Greek olive oil). Tests are being created to detect not just the olive species, but also the location of the tree. These tests have all grown out of the new demand for PDO labels (Protected Destination of Origin), which are all big business in the food industry: it's not enough to eat well, but you are willing to pay for the status of the food. 

It must sound strange to the ears of the ignorant, but it is absolutely true - exported Italian olive oil is hardly ever just Italian olive oil. The next time you buy bulk olive oil bottled in Italy, you can be sure that a large amount of the oil in that bottle is actually from Greece. Here's an extract from a pre-crisis study by MAICh (2008):
olive oil INKA supermarket
INKA supermarket
"Greece devotes 60% of its cultivated land to olive-growing. It is the world's top producer of black olives and boasts more varieties of olives than any other country. Greece holds third place in world olive production with more than 132 million trees, which produce approximately 350,000 tons of olive oil annually, of which 75% is extra-virgin. This makes Greece the world's biggest producer of extra-virgin olive oil, topping Italy (where only 40-45% of olive oil produced is extra virgin) and Spain (where only 25-30% of olive oil produced is extra virgin). About half of the annual Greek olive oil production is exported, while only 5% of this quantity reflects the origin of the bottled product. In other words, only 5% of the Greek olive oil is exported as a trade mark and the rest is exported as a raw material while being processed and bottled in different countries, mainly Italy. Greek exports primarily target European Union countries, the main recipient being Italy, which receives about three-quarters of total exports."
My Italian friend in the US was shocked when she read this, as she'd been buying Italian olive oil for many years:  
"As soon as I read this post, I went and got my bottle of olive oil to read the label. Sure enough, even though it says 'product of Italy' on it, when I read the fine print (with a magnifying glass -- no kidding), it reads that 'this product contains select high quality oils from Italy, GREECE, Spain, and Tunisia.'"

When Paula next went to her Oregon supermarket, she bought extra-virgin olive oil from Hania.
Since then, the heat is on to find the most foolproof way of detecting olive oil adulteration. Such advances in knowledge and technology have led to greater success in the fight against the adulteration of olive oil. Progress in DNA technology can now detect whether olive oil is purely from one region as well as being able to identify purely extra-virgin olive oil and adulterated oil mixtures (ie olive and non-olive oil mixes):
olive oil MAICh
Collection of olive oil at MAICh
"The authenticity of products labeled as olive oil has become an important subject from both commercial and health aspects. Olive oil has recently gained in popularity because of its quality, potential health benefits, and its strict purity control. From a commercial point of view, olive oil commands high market prices because of its production costs and an increasing consumer demand. Price is a determinant factor in a permanent problem of adulteration, which is found in the case of olive oil (Harwood, J. and Aparicio, R. eds. 2000. Handbook of olive oil, analysis and proprieties. Gaithersburg Maryland: Aspen Publ. Inc; cf Meriem Aoun, 2011, Study on the limit of detection and the storage effect of DNA-based methods for the authentication of olive oil, M.Sc. thesis, MAICh.)
Just last month, I read a new report on olive oil and fruit & vegetable marketing principles. The findings of this report uncovered a host of EU anomalies, giving me quite a few chuckles as I proof-read it. As my boss says, "You're really lucky to get to read so much newly published work. Who else gets the chance to have first access to so much new information?" It's time I shared this in a blog post, with a sprinkling of Organically Cooked humour (in red). 

- The world's biggest olive oil producing nations: "Spain, Italy, Greece, Turkey, Tunisia and Syria, in descending order, are the biggest olive oil producers in the Mediterranean region and also the world, since they concentrate 88,5% of world production, with Spain alone providing almost half. Surprisingly, it is the two largest producers, Italy and Spain, which have the greatest olive oil imports, in part because they re-export the imported oil." Conclusion: Spain and Italy, the world's greatest olive oil exporters, can't produce enough oil for their needs (even though they consume only half the amount per capita as Greece who is a non-importer), so they import it from other countries.

- Exporters of olive oil: "Although during the period 2009-2010, Germany imported only about 7.1% of the world’s imports of olive oil (the majority of olive oil in the German market is imported from Italy, followed by Greece and Spain) and consumed about 2.1% of the world consumption, it is considered to be a very dynamic market. Germany also exports virgin olive oil, in small amounts to Austria and the Netherlands." Conclusion: Instead of buying straight from the producer, Northern European countries sell and re-sell olive oil to each other.

- Importers of olive oil: "Olive oil import activity in the Netherlands is mostly in the hands of big multinationals which have developed similar activities in the global market. ‘Bertolli’ (mentioned in the hazelnut olive oil swindle) is an Italian-based 100% daughter of the Anglo-Dutch Unilever-Bestfoods. In 2008, Unilever sold its Bertolli olive oil and vinegar business to Grupo SOS, Spain's second largest food group. Although ‘Bertolli’ is marketed through promoting its Italian origin and lifestyle, the raw product (olive oil) is imported from Spain, Greece and North African countries." Conclusion: Italian olive oil is made in other countries.

LIDL's Prima Donna olive oil
- Labeling of olive oil: "Labeling of olive oil on German packaging contains information on the category of the oil (eg 'extra virgin'), filling quantity, expiry date, address of the producer, bottler or trader and regional origin in the case of oil with PDO or PGI. But most German olive oil is labelled 'extra virgin', even bottles of supermarket private-label olive oil (eg LIDL, ALDI), which suggests 'high quality' to the German consumer. Since consumers are generally not able to distinguish between the different qualities within the category of 'extra virgin' olive oil, most of them are not willing to pay more for the same perceived quality." Conclusion: Germans think they are buying 'extra virgin olive oil' when they shop for it at cheap supermarkets like LIDL.

Gamma olii
Bertolli olive oil
* Wording on the label: "Olive oil exporters, traders, wholesalers and other olive oil suppliers  sometimes use carefully selected wording to create a higher product image which in reality it is not, so as to increase the market value of that particular product, while if rules were kept stricter and terminology had been constrained to commonly accepted official terms (IOOC terminology), such misleading wording would have been avoided. The misleading labels that are commonly used are: imported from Italy, bottled in Italy, product of Italy, 100% pure olive oil, light (or lite) olive oil, from hand-picked olives, cold pressed or first press." Conclusion: As long as a word is being used in a technical (but not necessarily literal) sense, then it's legal (even if misleading).
- Extra virgin olive oil: The magazine “Der Feinschmecker” tested eight different extra virgin olive oils. Four were being sold under the private label of cheap supermarkets and the other four belonged to expensive producer brands. Using the state-of-the-art Serani analysis (Greece has been using this since 2001), it was proven that in the case of the four supermarket brands, the 'extra virgin' labelling was misused. Two different labs found that heat treatment had been used in the four cheaper olive oils (LIDL's and ALDI's were among them), which should therefore not be marketed as extra virgin, but as refined olive oils. But using traditional analytical methods, all eight olive oils were legitimately classified as extra virgin olive oil. Conclusion: Cheap supermarkets are technically able to sell cheap 'extra virgin' olive oil.

What does all this amount to? Unfair practices and unfair competition. Worst of all, the most significant marketable commodity, a vital element of the identity of Greece, is bring robbed from its rightful owners. 100% Greek olive oil is still being sold in small 'boutique'-style bottles instead of the bulk quantities, which is how most Mediterraneans buy their olive oil outside producer countries. Only Spanish and Italian olive oil is sold in this way, seaking of which, it probably isn't 100% Spanish or Italian olive oil in the first place. All these oils are inferior to Greek olive oil which is produced at the extra-virgin quality 80% of the time

The problem of Greece's marketing strategies is slowly being rectified... albeit very slowly. But her extended EU family have to show some φιλότιμο and not constantly sell out her image. In all the scientific reports that I've had the work-related pleasure of reading about olive oil, only Greek olive oil is lauded to any extent. No other country in the Mediterranean produces the amount of extra virgin olive oil as Greece does, no other country produces so many different varieties of olive and no other country in the world does not import olive oil. Only Greece, with the highest per capita consumption rate of olive oil in the world*, twice that of Italy and Spain, has these privileges. In the transparent world we live in, it's only a matter of time that this will become more widely known; the good thing about the internet is that time is not a factor any more - with web-based information dissemination, the word spreads very fast. Of course, you don't have to eat olive oil to live a long healthy life (the Okinawans' longevity rate probably has little to nothing to do with olive oil), but it might help.

To learn more about the fraudulent practices of the Italian olive oil industry, you may be interested to read Tom Mueller's book about it.

Coincidentally, the Guardian published an article on Italian olive oil fraud on the same day I posted this.

*In our home, we go through approx. 120-150kg of olive oil per year - divide that among 5 people.

©All Rights Reserved/Organically cooked. No part of this blog may be reproduced and/or copied by any means without prior consent from Maria Verivaki.