New York Times Revises Olive Oil Fraud Infographic

The New York Times made revisions to an infographic on olive oil fraud that critics said was sensational and inaccurate in parts.

The changes were made on the New York Times website today, just after 8:00 PM Eastern Standard Time, or about four days after the original piece was posted.
See more: NY Times Olive Oil Fraud Infographic Timeline
Among the changes, Tom Mueller, author of the book Extra Virginity, was removed as the source of the article after Mueller insisted he was not responsible for the misinformation.

The slide that drew the most attention was one which stated “69 percent of the olive oil for sale (in the U.S.) is doctored.” The Times changed it to “69 percent of imported olive oil labeled ‘extra virgin’ did not meet, in a taste test, the standard for that label.”

Another slide originally read “Bottles are labeled ‘Extra Virgin’ and branded with ‘Made in Italy’ (Oddly this is legal even if the oil does not come from Italy).”

It was changed to: “Bottles are labeled ‘Extra Virgin’ and labeled ‘Packed in Italy’ or ‘Imported from Italy.’ (Oddly, this is legal, even if the oil does not come from Italy — although the source countries are supposed to be listed on the label.)”

Another slide read, “The olive oil is cut with cheaper oil.” It was changed to : “At some refineries the olive oil is cut with cheaper oil.”

Earlier, the illustrator of the article complained in a Twitter update that he was “getting letters on the nuclear magnetic resonance of olive oil from Italian chemists,” and yet he was “only an illustrator.” With Mueller removed as the article’s source, it remains unclear who wrote the piece.

An explanation of the corrections had not yet appeared on the Times Corrections page.

The corrections could bring some relief to those who thought the article’s generalizations reinforced stereotypes and indicted legions of honest Italian olive oil producers. But when news travels at the speed of light, four days is an eternity, and the statements the Times retracted today had already been broadcast and shared around the world.

UPDATE (Feb. 25, 2014):

The New York Times has appended the article with this explanation:

“An earlier version of this graphic contained several errors.

Olives that are used in substandard oil are typically taken to mills days, weeks or even months after being picked — not “within hours.”

The graphic conflated two dubious practices that can be found in parts of the olive oil industry. Some producers mix olive oil with soybean or other cheap oils, while others mix vegetable oils with beta carotene and chlorophyll to produce fake olive oil; the two practices are not usually combined.

Olive oil bottled in Italy and sold in the United States may be labeled “packed in Italy” or “imported from Italy” — not “produced in Italy” — even if the oil does not come from Italy. (However, the source countries are supposed to be listed on the label.)

A 2010 study by researchers at the University of California, Davis, found that 69 percent of imported olive oil labeled “extra virgin” did not meet, in an expert taste and smell test, the standard for that label. The study suggested that the substandard samples had been oxidized; had been adulterated with cheaper refined olive oil; or were of poor quality because they were made from damaged or overripe olives, or olives that had been improperly stored or processed — or some combination of these flaws. It did not conclude that 69 percent of olive oil for sale in the United States was doctored.

Finally, the graphic incorrectly cited Tom Mueller, who runs the blog Truth in Olive Oil, as the source of the information. While Mr. Mueller’s blog and other writings were consulted in preparation of the graphic, several of his findings were misinterpreted.”

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This article was last updated May 9, 2014 - 10:46 AM (GMT-5)

  • Mike

    Sadly the damage has already been done…the changes are nice but people will not go back and look at the revised piece. Quite honestly if these changes hadn’t been pointed out in the article above I wouldn’t have even noticed them when clicking through the ‘new’ version of the slide show. A picture speaks a thousand words…

    Stepping back, this NYT infographic hurts all producers, not just Europeans. It destroys consumer trust in our products, regardless of origin. If the olive oil industry truly wants to move forward and restore that trust we should spend less time debating infographics like this one, even though I do agree that the piece was flawed. We should spend more time preventing them from being made in the first place by developing comprehensive product testing and (more importantly) industry promotional initiatives to reassure (now skeptical) consumers that EVOO is worth buying.

    It find it interesting that people continue to rehash the merits & flaws of the UC Davis study. Unfortunately for olive oil producers everywhere the UC Davis study isn’t the only one pointing to a quality issue…there’s the news from Taiwan, the EU study on food fraud, the US Consumer Reports article, etc. There are literally too many to list here. Consumers are being hit with news on poor quality from multiple sources, and it is creating a tidal wave of negativity that will ultimately push them away from olive oil. That must be fixed!

    • virginia brown

      Yes, this is all true, and especially regarding the fact that this hurts the entire sector, worldwide. The question remains as to who is actually responsible for this. Now, I am not a fan of conspiracy theories 😉 but it is curious that it comes at a time when big companies like Gargill (who recently announced it was ‘partnering’ with Filipo Berio to market ‘olive oil products’ which are in some cases 75% canola and 25% olive oil) and Monsanto (soon to introduce a soy oil with ‘health qualities’ of olive oil) are entering the market. A distrust of real olive oil is indeed a clever strategy for such campaigns to sway consumers. Call me a nutcase, but think about it.

    • dickdagger

      I agree Mike. Nice to see a level headed response. Unfortunately there is a problem, but EU policy makers/policing authorities refuse to acknowledge that. Every time independent consumer organizations like those in Spain, Australia, the US, and Universities in Germany, Austria and Argentina report issues (and those are the ones I know of), the response is – no they’re biased as they are from so and so country, and that country has a vested interest blah blah blah .. (which is a straw argument as they only attack the messenger and not the method used to draw the conclusion). Either that, or they profess that the oil were out of spec because of poor storage or transport (usually after some official investigation lasting months whereby no evidence for their claim of poor storage is offered for scrutiny).

      In some ways it is pretty predictable that any problem is attributed to storage conditions as they know it is a claim that is easily made, but on the flip side, can’t easily be tested. But they also either know, or should know, that oils don’t go fusty with storage. They are born fusty. And sure, oils can tip over the acidity 0.8% AOVE limit with time, but only if they were at a pretty unacceptable 0.7% acidity when made, and were stored particularly poorly thereafter. Olive oils containing sterols only found in canola have been adulterated. There is no chemical pathway for the production of brassicasterol in olives. It got there by someones hand. They know, or should know that too.

      EU PR spin doctors play on the naivity of consumers regarding olive oil chemistry. Understandably so. It’s an easy angle. But the world has changed. Half truths/half facts if not addressed honestly at an official level WILL turn in 1/4 truths in infographics, and those 1/4 truth will become a 1/8th and 1/16 truth after 2 or 3 retweets or facebook posts.

      Welcome to 2014.

    • Halli620

      Hopefully, the only “damage” that has been done is to make people look more critically at their olive oil choices and choose more carefully the brands they use. This is not exactly a “never buy olive oil” tirade, and if more consumers are more educated and more carefully choose their purchases, this would be a good thing.

  • BRC

    It is refreshing that the Times changed it. Thanks for reporting on it.

  • What to Believe

    Maybe to redress the damage the NYT should publish an infographic titled
    How we mislead people through bad editing…that will make people read it

  • Ettore Fieramosca

    I think that the revise is bad than the original. Because continue to give credit to the UC davis study. It Is focused to Italian evoo and don’ t explain that Italy just have a legal label for product certified by origin called “DOP”. And another things is that in Italy police don’ t detect only smelling evoo but detecting the level of esters; A good evoo don’t have a quantity more than 30mg/kg but eu permit to arrive till 75mg/kg for now. The problem is that in USA this parameter is not considered. US need a standardization of quality parameter.

    • dickdagger

      While the DOP system is honorable as it is place to ensure authenticity, the concept of DOP is totally irrelevant to 99.9% of American consumers because 1) they aren’t widely available and 2) when they are, they are an unaffordable item in a typical supermarket trolley. No one is going to spend 1/5th to 1/10th of their weekly family grocery spend on a bottle of olive oil – DOP or non DOP.

      Most Americans in their lifetime will only ever encounter so called Italian olive oils sold by the big packers, most of which have a distinct Picually aroma, indicating that they are actually Spanish.

      I would implore any Italian who visits the US or Australia, or New Zealand or South Africa etc, to taste the olive oils in Supermarkets which are either labelled as product of Italy or suggestive that they are a product of Italy. They will quickly come to the realization that whatever laws protect Italian consumers sure don’t apply outside Italy.

      And therein lies the real problem.

  • Olivar

    Unfortunately, there is a problem in the entire supply chain as well, aside from a significant number of artesanal producers that still believe that if they cultivate their own olives, manage the crushing and bottling themselves, it is automatically extra virgin without testing it chemically or for taste defects.

    Frist, governments have an important role to play which they have ignored given they do not require any proof of quality to justify the classification on a commercial invoice submitted by the importer stating “extra virgin” (at least definitely in Canada and probably the USA).

    Second, in the next step in the supply chain – retailers do not ask for any proof given that the majority do not understand how olive oil is classified and many look for products at good margins with a presentation on the shelve that will sell for maximum profits.

    Lastly, consumers are generally unaware as well that marketing messages on the label such as “first pressed, cold pressed”, “100% olive oil”, “traceable”, etc., are no gaurantee of an extra virgin.