Importers Call NYT Piece ‘Defamatory’, Mueller ‘Dismayed’

See more: NY Times Olive Oil Fraud Infographic Timeline
A trade group of American olive oil importers blasted the New York Times for what it called a “defamatory and inaccurate” piece on olive oil adulteration in Italy. And Extra Virginity author Tom Mueller said he was “dismayed” that he was cited as the source of the article.

I had no input on content, fact-checking, etc. Wish I had.- Tom Mueller

In a letter to the New York Times Public Editor, Eryn Balch, executive vice president of the North American Olive Oil Association, wrote: “I’m shocked by this defamatory piece about Italian olive oil adulteration. This piece is riddled with false statements presented as though they are fact.”

“With the lines between fact-based journalism and anecdotal story-telling being blurred through online media more and more, readers need to be able to rely on credible institutions like The New York Times to separate the two,” Balch wrote. “By failing to review the factual statements made in this piece, your trusted brand has become an outlet for self-serving marketeers.”

Tom Mueller

The New York Times offered a slideshow titled “Extra Virgin Suicide,” that presented 15 cards on the process of large-scale adulteration in the olive oil industry in Italy. The feature, which was published Saturday, is by New York Times illustrator Nicholas Blechman and cites Mueller as its only source.

Bechman is the art director of The New York Times Book Review. He is not a Times reporter.

In an email, Mueller said he “knew nothing” about the Times piece and was “dismayed” that his name was attached to it. “The author and I spoke briefly by phone, and we exchanged an email, in both of which I gave him general info on the olive oil industry, and pointed him in the direction of more info.”

However, Mueller congratulated Blechman in a tweet shortly after the article’s publication:

By now, the piece has been shared around the world, and picked up by countless online publications. On Sunday the New York Times website listed it third among its most emailed articles.

Nicholas Blechman

The graphic, that the New York Times called “interactive” despite having no way for readers to comment, contained a number of statements that have alarmed industry experts with their inaccuracies and fueled yet another debate about an industry at least as rife with misinformation as it is with fraud.

One of the cards in the series said “approximately 69 percent of the olive oil for sale in the U.S. is doctored.” It was presumably referring to the 2010 U.C. Davis study that found samples of ten imported brands labeled extra virgin in three California supermarkets (not exactly a national sampling) to be substandard — not that they were intentionally “doctored.”

Another illustration implied that the Italian police rely solely on sensory testing, dismissing chemical analyses as “easy to fake.” And “many” producers in Italy, with their refineries “raided regularly,” are nevertheless able to avoid prosecution, according to the Times, thanks to their “connections with powerful politicians” — a stereotype experts are calling overblown and out of touch.

Bechman seems to have come under some fire for the piece, tweeting that he was receiving letters from Italian chemists while reminding readers “I’m just an illustrator.”

In an earlier tweet, Blechman thanked Mueller and three other illustrators for their help with the project.

The New York Times has not responded to a request for comment.

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This article was last updated May 9, 2014 - 10:48 AM (GMT-5)

  • Jonathan Steward

    So a highly damaging and false feature is “written” by an illustrator — who cites as his source an author who says he had nothing to do with it. And this is the New York Times we’re talking about?

  • Lauren G

    So is it true that Italian olive oil is mixed with chemicals or not?

    • What to believe

      Yes its true …1% (my guess is as good as anyones). The way you phrase your question is exactly the problem…you include all Italian olive oil. So if I found that 1% of Californian olive oil is mixed with chemicals would I be right in asking “So is it true that Californian olive oil is mixed wiih chemicals? See the impact when its yours?

      • Patricia porche

        On Fox News Sunday. There was quite a discussion about doctored cold pressed extra virgin olive oil. One segment I was watching (can’t remember the show) said you can test the EVOO you buy by putting it in the refrigerator. If it solidifies that means it is good quality if it doesn’t solidify it really isn’t EVOO.
        I tested this theory with my Pompeian imported extra virgin olive oil first cold pressed 68 ounces in tinted green bottle. It stayed liquid and I left it in the refrigerator for 24 hours. Does this mean this oil is fake? Does anyone know for sure? Thanks
        Patricia Porche

  • Tupper

    The second I read the Times graphic I thought it was extremely harsh against all Italian olive oil and overly dramatic in order to justify the clever imagery.

  • William G.

    I see nothing wrong with the illustration. Oh wait, except for the thousands of honest Italian families making great olive oil and who Mueller and and Blechman convict with their cartoon.

  • Olive Farmer

    I’d like to see Eryn Balch’s detailed response to the piece. What is the correct percentage of ‘doctored’ oil in the US market if 69% is wrong? Is it 70%? 40%? Having read Mr Mueller’s book, which exposes the widespread corruption in the olive oil trade, I see absolutely nothing wrong with the slideshow, which is by definition very generalised, but gets the key points across very effectively. The NY Times exists to sell newspapers and not to tell the truth, lest we forget that. If the North American Olive Oil Association don’t like it, what are they doing to eliminate bad and illegal practices in their industry?

    • What to Believe

      My dear Lord! How low can you go. “the NYTimes exists to sell newspapers and not to tell the truth”? I suppose a justification for the mythical WMD

    • Ettore Fieramosca

      The 69% is the result of a statistic from UC Davis California. A privat university that have made the test with financial help and collaboration of Californian evo producers and Australian producers organizations. Not exactly an objective test. The result are used from these producers for make marketing against the imported product.
      Look the report.

      Consider the method of picking the product on supermarket the little quantity of sample analized i think is not correct use this research for talk about evoo adulterations.

  • Marco Petrini

    NYT lets an ILLUSTRATOR write something so specific and detailed, based on a BIAS and totally arbitrary study made by UC Davis in 2010. a study PAID (by admission on the notes of the study) by the California Olive Oil Producers: California Olive Ranch, Cprto, and others…….really???? And we consider this journalism? Please…….BTW to be perfercly clear and honest I am in charge of an Oil Brand from Italy, Monini, a reputable one like many others. Fraud needs to be fought with LAWS and CONTROLS, not with bias media reports.

  • Alex

    Italy is a major olive oil importer, importing more than it exports (Fact). Most olive oil labelled as italian is a blend of oils imported from Spain and North Africa (Fact). The rest, I don’t know.

    • What to Believe

      You are as bad as the others with your Facts…how much more is imported (1 litre) and how much of the imported oils are consumed in Italy (0% – 100%). and what is yoour definition of most? 2%?

    • Virginia brown

      Maybe my bottles are special, but most have said “bottled in Italy” for quite some time now. Bottled and produced recognizably distinct by… anyone?

  • Grower

    Instead of all the accusations demeaning the author, why don’t you fix the problem? Blaming the newspaper and the author isn’t going to fix the problem. Agreed, not all are creating the problems for the industry, but perception is reality. Until the buyers refuse to purchase your product, it will be business as usual.

    • What to Believe

      The author is huring the honest oil producers at no cost of his fact he gets revenue for misleading. You dont see anything wrong with that?

    • virginia brown

      But, it turns out, there is no author. There’s just a guy who draws pictures and an attribution of ideas to… someone’s who never knew about it.

  • Gregor Christiaans

    I am from a non producing country of olive oil, Holland (allthough we do make wines…who knows in the future :-) Every country ofcourse has the best olive oil in the world. It’s surprising to see to how local protectionism is used in the fight for good olive oil. Am I making any sense?

  • RMM

    While there is generalization in the slide presentation, there is also an overreaction by the defenders of the “Italian” olive oil. If you buy the stuff expecting it to have the features (taste, country of origin, chemical properties and purity, etc.) and these are lacking there is a good reason to object and feel cheated. This would be true whether the oil was created from something else (oils of other plants plus additives) or is just ruined by abuse (like careless processing, farming practices, or storage as some examples). Extra virgin oil oil is sold at a premium price and the buyer deserves premium performance according to established official standards or traditional criteria which users of quality oil accept as normal. Sadly those producers in Italy providing great quality, real extra virgin olive oils do suffer because there are no reliable mechanisms for certification such that the proper oils can be promptly recognized while rejecting the misrepresented oils. The obvious solution is for the persons selling or promoting good olive oils to develop a trustworthy method to assure the quality of what is in the bottles.
    Meanwhile, it is no wonder a lot of falsification is under way; high quality olive oil is not cheap and there is plenty of money to made by “upgrading” poor substitutes and selling the result to consumers admittedly not able to discern the full range of characteristics defining great olive oil. Not only that, these consumers will never learn to appreciate the joy of great olive oil if the industry fails to deliver what they allow to be promised.

  • Steven Jenkins

    Mr Blechman,

    Your “Extra Virgin Suicide” graphic essay is highly misleading. While you do start the first image with “much of the oil sold as Italian..” the impression your graphic article leaves upon the reader is clearly that 69% of all olive oil sold in the US is doctored! That is ridiculous and unsubstantiated by any entity. You and Mueller are doing these farmers and millers a monumental disservice when you lump all olive oil producers together like that.

    Your graphic comes down like a hammer with a guilty verdict on Mediterranean olive oil. Rather than educate the public on reading labels and choosing oils you are creating doubt as to whether they should buy Mediterranean olive oil at all.

    I have personally had this conversation at length with Tom Mueller who seems to me to be an earnest person. He has allowed that I am justified at being annoyed at him for failing to point out that there are bottom-feeders in the supermarket and specialty food industry whose practice is to stock the cheapest of anything, certainly olive oil, not to mention that these bottom-feeders know next to nothing about olive oil. The cheapest olive oil is the domain of these supermarkets and their vendors.

    He has further allowed that he barely mentioned those of us whose devotion to and knowledge of olive oil is unsurpassed, and that our selections offer only the superb oils that abound contrary to the message sent by his book and your graphic essay.

    My 150 different olive oils, overwhelmingly Mediterranean in origin, that I import and retail for my Fairway Markets here in the tri-state area, are among the finest, purest, most trustworthy foodstuffs I have dealt with in my 39-year career. Most have been tested at a bonded independent laboratory, a frequent and ongoing practice that is both expensive and time-consuming.

    My wonderful extra-virgin olive oils have been sourced by me myself from groves owned and operated by multigenerational families to whom fraud and cheating is something that simply never would occur.

  • Richard

    I think enough has been said about how grossly generalised this infographic is, how the “69%” figure it quotes has been discredited due to lack of independence in the UC Davis study and how pathetically shallow the swipe at an industry is. Is it true that there is olive oil fraud? Of course there is. There is fraud in almost every food product industry. We didn’t need a study to tell us that. In the end though, isn’t it up to the consumer to vote with their feet? If an olive oil is so horrible that it shouldn’t be classed as extra virgin, shouldn’t that oil’s degenerating reputation ultimately destroy its sales? This is the way markets have worked for thousands of years…

    What get’s me about this is the bit about Mr. Mueller, who congratulates the production of this graphic, and then later decides that he didn’t read it properly and hadn’t been involved in it? A self-reported expert should surely have picked up very quickly any inaccuracies even if he only skimmed it? And surely such an industry expert wouldn’t comment on something if he hadn’t read it?
    Strangely enough this stinks of the same type of denial My Mueller gave when research he published on his blog in January 2013, when such research was funded by Veronica Foods, who happens to be the distributor of Australia’s largest producer Boundary Bend (of the brands Cobram Estate and Red Island) and all the tests were completed at Modern Olives laboratory in Australia which is owned by Boundary Bend. When this was all exposed, Mr Mueller claimed to be ignorant of it all, saying “I was not aware that Modern Olives was owned by Boundary Bend, one of the many suppliers of olive oil to Veronica Foods”.
    You really expect us to believe you any more, Mr. Mueller? You are an expert who seems to make a lot noise and biased accusations, but then whenever something goes wrong or is exposed you are suddenly ignorant or “not aware” about basic important factors? It’s pathetically transparent.

    • Richard

      Oh…and by the way, that non-independent lab Modern Olives that Mueller loves to use, is not only privately owned by the big producer Boundary Bend, but it has never been accredited by any authoritative body for sensory panel testing (perhaps the most quoted reason for failing the grade), and furthermore even lost (in 2013) their accreditation for basic chemical testing for olive oil because they were not able to pass the annual accuracy tests that all labs must pass.

      • dickdagger

        Commercial labs test stuff, and they are paid to do so, and they are paid to do it accurately. Could you please expand on what ‘accreditation’ for ‘basic chemical testing’ they have lost, and what annual accuracy test?

    • Halli620

      While I also thought it was incongruous that he initially congratulated him, mueller did not say he hadn’t read it, but that he had been quoted inappropriately. There are definitely many cases of interviewees directing the interviewer to other sources of information and then being misquoted. This appears to be a combination.

  • C Barnes

    It is interesting to me that on a website titled ‘Olive Oil Times’, not one person has confirmed if in fact Italy is selling and distributing a pure product. I lived in Italy and know quality olive oil… which can NOT be found in the States, though the labels claim to be the real deal. Someone please prove to me that that the ‘Extra Virgin Olive Oil’ that is ‘Imported from Italy’ is uncut and truly made from Italian olives. Most comments attack the NY Time’s article, and those involved in it’s publication, but I, and other foodies, have already suspected this problem because the flavor of Italian olive oil is quite diminished from even a decade ago. Show me hard evidence that the article is in anyway inaccurate. I would be relieved if was!

    • dickdagger

      The body representing 80% of Italian olive oil exports regularly reports that over 85% of what they export is ‘ordinary extra virgin’ as distinct from ‘Italian extra virgin’ and ‘Italian organic extra virgin’. So what is this stuff shown in their annual reports as ‘ordinary extra virgin”?

      Yes, you guessed it, ‘ordinary extra virgin’ is a euphemism for all extra virgin olive oil imported from Spain, North Africa and other places into Italy, blended there, and exported as product of Italy to the US and other countries outside the EU.

      Forget adulterated olive oil. this total legal switcheroony is most likely the world’s biggest and longest running food scam. Over a 20 year time period, the import, export and consumption figures out of Italy have been out (in total) by a staggering 6 billion litres, the result of 20 years of (mostly) Spanish oil being passed off as Italian. The Spanish are equally to blame, as they condone the practice in the interest of sales, as consumers pay more for oil labelled as Product of Italy.

      The numbers appear unreal, but as they say, if you are going to lie, it is better to make it a big lie, because more people will believe it.

  • Riccardo Scarpellini

    In my opinion, the N.Y.T. should do another comics still inspired by Tom Mueller book, this time dedicated to one
    of the best EVOO producer in the world, DE CARLO, an Italian family, that
    started producing high quality EVOO before the discovery of America. Tom Muller
    dedicated many pages of his Extravirginity to this ancient Apulian family;
    their extraordinary single variety Coratina, Torre Di Mossa, is a very complex
    EVOO rich in notes of artichoke, chicory and fragrant hints of sage and mint
    but most important, with an incredible Polyphenol content. It’s also important to point out that the
    Coratina is just one of the 638 olive
    varieties available in Italy, an olive heritage unique in the world and last
    but not the least in Italy there are hundreds of producers like the De Carlo
    family. Riccardo Scarpellini