Many of us are passionate about extra virgin olive oil. Indeed, the number is increasing so fast that there’s now a growing consensus against allowing deregulation or lack of protection and control for this exceptional product. It’s time to stand up against the ways in which it’s being manipulated, and make necessary and urgent changes: in order to be classified as ‘extra virgin’, oils need to be just that! Our mission is to make sure everyone understands just
what that means.
Imagine being in a supermarket and finding generic wines named ‘Brunello’, ‘Barbaresco’ or ‘Champagne’ being sold in bag-in- boxes for 3 euros/$2 per litre. With little or no explanation on the labels, no regulations or presumption of quality, those wines would sell out in no time, even if most people know that if you want a good bottle of wine you’re best buying it in a wine shop or specialised department, and paying the amount it’s really worth.
Some extra virgin olive oils are being sold for 3 euros too while people wonder how that’s possible? The answer is simple: like the wines we mentioned before, these are low-grade oils that are barely fit for consumption.
Luckily, in some parts of the world, more and more discerning consumers and sales people are begining to understand why. But not everyone realises that those impossibly low prices are masking fraud that has been tacitly agreed to by the Italian and European governments thanks to a ‘pact’ that allows some areas to be developed more than others, resulting in the improved economy of some zones and the impoverishment of the food business in others.
Luigi Veronelli, the late pioneering Italian food and wine writer, was the first to sound the alarm. He denounced this type of fraud as early as 2002, when he heard of a freighter that left Turkey carrying a load of hazelnut oil. By the time it docked in Italy, that oil had been registered as extra virgin olive oil. That ship was seized, but it was only one of many that were carrying seed and nut oils towards European ports whose cargo miraculously turned into extra virgin oil thanks to the falsifying of their travel documents.
Many things may have changed since then, and premium olive oil producers are on the increase and much better informed. Guide books in many languages have made it easier to find quality oils and direct consumers to all sorts of olive oil events. It’s possible now to take classes in how to taste and grade extra virgin oil.
That’s why, compared to 17 years ago, the time is right to demand that the industrial oil sector be more respectful of the rules. Let’s be clear about what we are asking for: any oil that purports to be classified as an extra virgin should pass both a chemical analysis and a panel test of tasters. (At the moment, the only analysis that is required of industrial olive oils is chemical, but the problem is that it’s possible to ‘adjust’ those chemical requirements in lower-grade oils).
All olive oils for human consumption should be made to pass the taste test, in which a group of certified tasters judge the oils to determine if they are truly extra virgin or whether they are instead in the categories of olive oil or the even lower ‘lampante’ (not considered edible) oil.
A law does already exist but it needs to be enforced! For example: no producer of wine or oil can be granted the Chianti Classico DOP certification without the product passing a panel taste test. The same criteria should apply for industrial extra virgin oils.
The other extremely urgent and important need is to lower the free fatty acid level of oil. It is currently at 0.8% and should be reduced to a maximum of 0.4%. The ‘free’ fatty acid of oil is a chemical parameter that is important for establishing the quality of an oil (and it’s not perceptible to taste). The maximum level of 0.8% set for extra virgin oil by the COI (Consiglio Olivicolo Internazionale – International Olive Council) and by other regulatory bodies is currently too high to guarantee quality. An excellent extra virgin oil usually has about 0.2% free acidity – or even less – whereas an oil with more than 0.5% risks being mediocre.
So why does the COI allow such a big range? The answer, sadly, is all too clear: it permits the large industrial companies to flood the market with ‘extra virgin’ oils – most of them mediocre – for low prices and with no concerns about how good they might be for consumers’ health.
All of this has a detrimental effect on the economy, and on work, health, olive groves and the countryside. Let’s try to imagine the upswing the market for ‘real’ extra virgin oils would have if the vast fatty sea of industrial oils was denied access to the wholesale market! A move like that would permit the production of the ‘true’ extra virgins to be reborn throughout the Mediterranean area and beyond, with a subsequent repopulation of the agricultural sector and renewed investments from entrepreneurs committed to quality, respect for the environment and fair pay for agricultural workers. If a protocol were adopted that favoured high-quality extra virgin oils, things really would change, because the funding from the European Union would finally go to encourage private and other estates whose priority is for very high and verifiable quality.
Italy, for instance, would be able to put back into production thousands of hectares of abandoned olive groves that currently mar the beautiful landscapes of Calabria, Campania, Basilicata and many other regions in which olive cultivation is no longer profitable. Their olives would be gathered from the plants instead of from the ground – by which time they’re already bruised or rotting – and would therefore reach the mills intact. No one would be able to complain any longer that taking care of the land was unprofitable!
These are the types of funding it would also make sense to give to the olive groves of Greece and north Africa. They would bring whole communities of people into farming and re-establish stability, wellbeing and hope in areas where people are otherwise destined for emigration or, worse, recruitment by extremists.
If the quality were certified and guaranteed, a Moroccan extra virgin oil would command the same price and respect as an oil coming from Tuscany. The ‘true’ price of extra virgin olive oil would create an income in the countryside which, in turn, would raise the countries’ GNP.
All of this could be launched from Italy, from our acquired agricultural know-how and diversity of cultivars (more than 500, a priceless patrimony!) in a country that, up until just a few generations ago, was almost all rooted in the land. We owe it to our ancestors who took such good care of our countryside and its cognitive patrimony, which was continually filtered through experience and growth. We owe it to all those hands which have cared for, supported and caressed the growth of the sumptuous millennia-old olive trees in Puglia that today are being besieged and felled by the emblematic and devastating parassite, xylella fastidiosa, and other diseases that are the result of abandoning the land.
The know-how acquired by Italian producers of top quality oils is very high, and their experience has by now been consolidated and become second nature. It wouldn’t be hard to establish a protocol to reproduce a tried and tested model like theirs in all the countries where oil is produced.
The lots of mediocre oils would be classified depending on their true market classes, and the consumer would finally be able to make sense of the classifications. With time, hopefully – as has happened in the wine world – consumers would begin to form a real culture of oil for themselves, learning to distinguish their characteristics and correct pairings.
Less experienced restaurateurs would learn to serve oils that, at the very least, would be free of defects, which in turn would avoid good food being ruined by bad oil.
We’re looking at a big chance for rebirth from many points of view, with a model that could also be replicated in the production of many other foods.
Faced with this sort of knowledge, a realistic price would no longer be considered too high for such a precious and crucial food, and extra virgin olive oil would once again have its true and highly important significance.