Business

Italian Court Quashes Lidl Italia Fine for Mislabeled Olive Oil

The German supermarket chain was found to be not negligent in mislabeling virgin olive oil as extra virgin.

Feb. 7, 2018
By Daniel Dawson

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An Italian court has nul­li­fied a half-mil­lion-Euro fine against Lidl for sell­ing bot­tles of mis­la­beled olive oil.

…it can­cels a fine not for rea­sons of qual­ity and pos­si­ble harm to con­sumers, but because the AGCM did not describe very well why the pro­fes­sional behav­ior was neg­li­gent.- Luca Bucchini, Hylobates Consulting

In 2016, Italy’s Antitrust Authority (AGCM) fined the German dis­count super­mar­ket chain €550,000 (about $679,000) after a sen­sory panel flagged its Primadonna brand of extra virgin olive oil.

Konsumer Italia, a con­sumer pro­tec­tion agency, com­mis­sioned the tests on Primadonna as well as on six other Italian olive oil brands in order to crack down on sus­pected fraud in bottle label­ing.

The panel deter­mined that the organolep­tic char­ac­ter­is­tics of Primadonna’s olive oil failed to meet the strict extra virgin qual­i­fi­ca­tions and instead could only be clas­si­fied as virgin olive oil. The AGCM also accused Lidl of rush­ing the oil onto the shelves with­out doing the proper due dili­gence.

The supermarket’s legal team dis­puted both of these charges, accus­ing the sen­so­r­ial panels of being “sub­jec­tive assess­ments” and pro­vid­ing insuf­fi­cient evi­dence of wrong­do­ing.

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During the trial, Lidl’s defense team said that the com­pany under­takes a series of checks with each batch of incom­ing olive oil.

“The con­tract between Lidl Italia and Fiorentini Firenze [the sup­plier for the Primadonna brand of olive oil] pro­vides for a series of checks on the prod­uct sup­plied,” the defense said in a state­ment.

“A first check is made by Fiorentini Firenze in its lab­o­ra­to­ries. The sam­ples of that prod­uct, in accor­dance with the con­trac­tual pro­vi­sions, are then sent to Germany at the pres­ti­gious Eurofins lab­o­ra­tory. In the face of those two com­pli­ant ana­lyzes, the prod­uct can be mar­keted.”

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In its ver­dict, the Administrative Court of Lazio con­firmed that the Primadonna brand olive oil only met virgin qual­ity stan­dards. The down­graded olive oil was deemed not to be harm­ful to human health, but led con­sumers to pay higher prices for lower organolep­tic qual­ity.

However, the court also said that Lidl had demon­strated a normal degree of dili­gence.

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“In the face of the con­trol mea­sures and the ver­i­fi­ca­tion system that Lidl has shown to have adopted in order to meet the stan­dards of dili­gence imposed on a food busi­ness oper­a­tor,” the Administrative Court said in its ruling.

“The sanc­tion­ing pro­vi­sion does not clar­ify for what reason the set of instru­ments pre­pared and con­cretely used by the pro­fes­sional could not be con­sid­ered suf­fi­ciently suit­able, accord­ing to the rules of normal pru­dence, to pre­vent the occur­rence of the con­tested event, the mar­ket­ing of a prod­uct not com­pli­ant with declared on the label.”

Luca Bucchini, a food law expert and man­ag­ing direc­tor of Hylobates Consulting, said that neg­a­tive sen­so­r­ial panel tests are unlikely to ever be the prover­bial smok­ing gun in court cases such as these, but warned against Lidl’s efforts to dis­par­age them.

“While pos­i­tive panel tests are impor­tant to show com­pli­ance, neg­a­tive panel test results alone may not be suf­fi­cient for author­i­ties to win impor­tant cases against brands, in court”, Bucchini told Foodnavigator.com. “Nothing sug­gests you can forgo panel tests if you pro­duce extra virgin olive oil.”

Fabrizio Premuti, the pres­i­dent of Konsumer Italia, said he was dis­ap­pointed by the ruling and plans to appeal to the Council of State, the next level up in the Italian legal system. Premuti sees Lidl’s defense as irrel­e­vant in pro­tect­ing the con­sumer from fraud­u­lently labeled oil.

“In our opin­ion, the ver­dict is quite sur­pris­ing, as it can­cels a fine not for rea­sons of qual­ity and pos­si­ble harm to con­sumers, but because the AGCM did not describe very well why the pro­fes­sional behav­ior was neg­li­gent,” he said.

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