Business

Deoleo Fights Back Against 'Fake News'

The world's largest olive oil company has gone on the offensive against click-bait headlines.

Jul. 19, 2018
By Curtis Cord

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The world’s largest olive oil com­pany is launch­ing an offen­sive against what it sees as a pro­lif­er­a­tion of fake news’ arti­cles and click-bait head­lines dis­parag­ing its brands.

For years now, arti­cles have been cir­cu­lat­ing around the inter­net sham­ing most of the major olive oil brands, lead­ing up to the cur­rently ubiq­ui­tous 14 Fake Olive Oil Brands You Should Avoid Now,” that names Deoleo’s Bertolli among oth­ers.

The arti­cles cite the 2010 Uni­ver­sity of Cal­i­for­nia at Davis study that found most super­mar­ket brands labeled extra vir­gin to be of a lower grade when sub­jected to chem­i­cal test­ing and sen­sory assess­ment.

The study, which was funded in part by Cal­i­for­nia pro­duc­ers, was small in scale but it packed a big punch: 69 per­cent of imported olive oils labeled as extra vir­gin failed the IOC sen­sory stan­dard,” the report pro­claimed. In other words, most imported extra vir­gin olive oils were not extra vir­gin at all.

That sim­ple state­ment would prove to be irre­sistible to the main­stream press and the Davis report has been quoted, and mis­quoted, ever since.

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The doc­u­ment became mate­r­ial evi­dence in class action law­suits and trade com­mis­sion hear­ings. It would be the ral­ly­ing cry in a bid to impose import con­trols in the fed­eral farm bill, the estab­lish­ment of a Cal­i­for­nia olive oil com­mis­sion and the adop­tion of new qual­ity stan­dards in Cal­i­for­nia.

It seemed news­wor­thy at the time,” Dan Flynn the exec­u­tive direc­tor of the UC Davis Olive Cen­ter said in 2015, but I didn’t really have any sense of how big it would become and that it would rever­ber­ate for as long as it has.”

A Google search reveals just how often the Olive Center’s report has been cited over the years, but no cita­tion was as high-pro­file, and inac­cu­rate, as the one in an infa­mous New York Times info­graphic that pro­claimed 69 per­cent of all imported olive oils to be doc­tored.” While the Times even­tu­ally cor­rected the arti­cle, the dam­age had been done and more accu­sa­tions flew back and forth across the Atlantic.

And now, more than eight years after the report was released, the cita­tions show no sign of sub­sid­ing and seem to have even reached a new crescendo after a blog­ger some­where twisted the report’s find­ings into the eye-catch­ing 14 Fake Olive Oils’ head­line that has worked its way through the inter­net.

Last week the CEO of Deoleo, Pier­luigi Tosato told indus­try exec­u­tives, Con­sump­tion is falling because con­sumers have a lack of con­fi­dence and they don’t trust any­thing.” Just two years into his tenure as head of the global olive oil giant, Tosato has put his PR team in motion to shed light on how a mod­est, eight-year-old qual­ity sur­vey got twisted into an inac­cu­rate inter­net meme.

Last month, jour­nal­ists and influ­encers received a pack­age from Deoleo con­tain­ing a bot­tle of Bertolli, a branded tast­ing glass and book­lets with talk­ing points on olive oil qual­ity and mar­ket data.

Then the com­pany launched a web­site, deoleo.info, that picks apart the mak­ing of a meme and dis­closes who it calls 14 Fake Olive Oil Blog­gers.”

We show how any com­pany can be affected by fake news by reveal­ing the tricks used by click-baiters to cre­ate sto­ries that go viral regard­less of their authen­tic­ity.” the web­site says.

The pub­lic rela­tions push coin­cides with what appears to be a ramped-up com­mit­ment to improv­ing qual­ity by the 135-year-old com­pany: Three of its lim­ited edi­tion brands won Gold Awards at the 2018 NYIOOC World Olive Oil Com­pe­ti­tion, for exam­ple, and Tosato said he has revamped the com­pa­ny’s sourc­ing pro­to­cols (most notably pay­ing farm­ers to har­vest their olives ear­lier).

We have been fac­ing attacks and a lot of fake news on the inter­net,” Tosato said in a video released by the com­pany. We are deny­ing all these alle­ga­tions and what we want to do is come up in front of con­sumers and show them exactly what we are doing.”

Indus­try observers note that it’s those alle­ga­tions, fake or not, that were the dri­ving force behind changes at Deoleo and other major pro­duc­ers in recent years, and if it weren’t for the Davis study and oth­ers just like it con­ducted around the world since then, it would likely be busi­ness as usual.

Olive oil qual­ity has been trend­ing upward, prompted by smaller pro­duc­ers striv­ing to dis­tin­guish their brands from low-priced options, ris­ing con­sumer inter­est in healthy foods and well-pub­li­cized exposés. Now the big­ger brands are see­ing the writ­ing on the wall in the form of click-bait head­lines and a surge in class action law­suits.

While few peo­ple so far seem to be vis­it­ing the new Deoleo web­site to get the other side of the story, major pro­duc­ers har­vest­ing ear­lier and ensur­ing extra vir­gin prod­ucts stay that way through their shelf lives would be sig­nif­i­cant steps with likely far greater trac­tion.


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