Using Isotopic Footprints to Authenticate Olive Oil, Combat Fraud

In Umbria, researchers and farmers are identifying the isotopic profiles of local extra virgin olive oils to verify authentic products and add value.

Nov. 10, 2021
By Paolo DeAndreis

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A new sci­en­tific and legal cer­ti­fi­ca­tion will help con­firm the ori­gin of and pro­mote extra vir­gin olive oil pro­duced in the cen­tral Italian region of Umbria.

Producers who adopt the iso­topic trace­abil­ity sys­tem will be able to guar­an­tee the ori­gin, organolep­tic fea­tures and ben­e­fi­cial prop­er­ties of their extra vir­gin olive oils to the con­sumers.

This approach is mean­ing­ful not only for ver­i­fy­ing the authen­tic­ity (of olive oil) but also to com­bat fraud. It allows us to pro­tect and give value to spe­cific high-qual­ity prod­ucts.- Luana Bontempo, researcher, Edmund Mach Foundation

Widely used in other seg­ments of the agri-food sec­tor, such as wine and Parmigiano Reggiano cheese, iso­topic trace­abil­ity iden­ti­fies extra vir­gin olive oil from Umbria using a spe­cific set of char­ac­ter­is­tics.

See Also: Italian Trade Group Backs Pan-European Traceability Rules

Identifying the iso­topic foot­print of food means gath­er­ing a lot of infor­ma­tion about its ori­gin,” Luana Bontempo, a researcher at the Edmund Mach Foundation in Terni, told Olive Oil Times. Isotopes are atoms of a sin­gle ele­ment dif­fer­en­ti­ated by their mass; that is why in nature, we find them in dif­fer­ent quan­ti­ties. Their pro­file depends on many dif­fer­ent fac­tors.”

Those fac­tors include geo­log­i­cal char­ac­ter­is­tics of the land of ori­gin, loca­tion, lat­i­tude, dis­tance from the sea, tem­per­a­ture, rain­fall and the fer­til­iza­tion pro­ce­dures adopted in the area. They also incor­po­rate the cul­ti­var involved and the specifics of the olive oil pro­duc­tion process. All of this infor­ma­tion con­sti­tutes the olive oil iden­tity card.

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The con­tents of an extra vir­gin olive oil must match those listed in a data­base that researchers have com­piled by exam­in­ing local olive oil, soil and cli­mate to trace its ori­gin and define its foot­print.

Bontempo and her col­leagues from the local farm­ers’ asso­ci­a­tions Confagricoltura Umbria and the Assoprol Umbria OP ini­tially focused on ana­lyz­ing hun­dreds of olive oil sam­ples from parts of Umbria with a Protected Designation of Origin cer­ti­fi­ca­tion.

The analy­sis allowed the researchers to under­stand the unique rela­tion­ships among sta­ble iso­topes of bio-ele­ments, which sup­port the def­i­n­i­tion of a rec­og­niz­able and ver­i­fi­able foot­print.

In olive oil, we have inves­ti­gated the iso­topic rela­tion­ships related to three bio-ele­ments such as hydro­gen, car­bon and oxy­gen,” Bontempo said.

Once the foot­print data­base has been cre­ated, the fol­low­ing iso­topic analy­ses are quick and straight­for­ward. The olive oil sam­ple can be ana­lyzed as it is, with none of the pre-treat­ments required for other tech­ni­cal pro­ce­dures aimed at deter­min­ing a product’s ori­gin.

This approach is mean­ing­ful not only for ver­i­fy­ing the authen­tic­ity [of olive oil] but also to com­bat fraud,” Bontempo said. It allows us to pro­tect and give value to spe­cific high-qual­ity prod­ucts and can be used both by offi­cial ver­i­fi­ca­tion bod­ies and con­sor­tia that work to pro­tect their prod­ucts.”

Fabio Rossi, the pres­i­dent of Confagricoltura Umbria, said the project, which is financed with regional devel­op­ment funds, is a col­lec­tive effort to make Umbria more effec­tive at com­bat­ting fraud.

Given the news that some­times appears in the press, many con­sumers risk step­ping away from high-qual­ity, healthy olive oil,” he told Olive Oil Times. So we need to offer them a ver­i­fied and legally valid trace­abil­ity sys­tem that can guar­an­tee the ori­gin and the con­tents of the extra vir­gin olive oil they are buy­ing.”

After more than two years of research, the analy­sis con­firmed a very clear iso­topic foot­print for Umbria extra vir­gin olive oil.

In a few cases, it could be con­fused with extra vir­gin olive oil from the nearby regions of Tuscany or Marche, but it is very dif­fer­ent if com­pared to Sicilian, Tunisian or Spanish olive oil,” Rossi said.

Efficacy and robust­ness of this ana­lyt­i­cal approach are proven by the fact that in the last 20 years, the analy­sis of sta­ble bio-ele­ments iso­topes has been rec­og­nized as an offi­cial method of ver­i­fi­ca­tion,” Bontempo added.

It is used for wine at the European level, for instance, to iden­tify fraud such as water addi­tions or exoge­nous sugar addi­tions, as well as for the ver­i­fi­ca­tion of the geo­graph­i­cal ori­gin and the year of pro­duc­tion,” she said.

On top of the new ver­i­fi­able trace­abil­ity, Confagricoltura and its sci­en­tific part­ners are work­ing on trac­ing back the his­tor­i­cal and ter­ri­to­r­ial roots of spe­cific cul­ti­vars.

We are inves­ti­gat­ing how, when and why those [cul­ti­vars] began thriv­ing in the region, and we will add to that infor­ma­tion the iso­topic trace­abil­ity,” Rossi said. The con­sumers will not only know about the his­tory of local extra vir­gin olive oils but they will also be informed about its com­po­si­tion and its spe­cific health ben­e­fits due to the unique­ness of its locally-spe­cific con­tents.”

The cur­rent method­ol­ogy is quickly under­go­ing major changes that could soon open the door to wide­spread adop­tion of the iso­topic analy­sis.

The most recent devel­op­ments in the iso­topic approach aim at build­ing iso­topic pre­dic­tive maps, iso-scapes, which would allow us to match the iso­topic rela­tion­ships with the char­ac­ter­is­tics of the prod­uct loca­tion of ori­gin,” Bontempo con­cluded. This would greatly reduce the need to build exten­sive datasets, which might be eco­nom­i­cally costly and time-con­sum­ing.”





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