` "Slippery Business" Journalist Tom Mueller Speaks at UC Davis - Olive Oil Times

"Slippery Business" Journalist Tom Mueller Speaks at UC Davis

Nov. 18, 2010
Alexandra Kicenik Devarenne

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By Alexandra Kicenik Devarenne
Olive Oil Times Contributor | Reporting from Sonoma County, California

Free-lance jour­nal­ist Tom Mueller spoke Wednesday after­noon to an audi­ence of 85 peo­ple at a University of California Davis event hosted by the UC Davis Olive Center. His 2007 arti­cle in New Yorker mag­a­zine, Slippery Business, was an exposé of a dark side of the inter­na­tional olive oil indus­try. His inves­ti­ga­tion of adul­ter­ation and uneth­i­cal prac­tices helped to advance the cause of advo­cates of olive oil stan­dards reform in the US. Mueller, an American who lives in Italy, was in California to do research on the olive oil indus­try for his upcom­ing book; described as a cul­tural, indus­trial and culi­nary his­tory of olive oil, the book is due out next November.

There is some­thing about olive oil
that makes peo­ple irra­tional
- Tom Mueller

Mueller’s audi­ence included California olive oil pro­duc­ers and indus­try sup­port­ers as well as mem­bers of the UC Davis com­mu­nity. UC Davis Professor Ed Frankel, one of the world’s lead­ing author­i­ties on lipid oxi­da­tion, who has recently announced his retire­ment, joined the gath­er­ing. There was also a panel dis­cus­sion with indus­try nota­bles Mike Bradley (President, Veronica Foods), Bill Briwa (Chef-Instructor, Culinary Institute of America), Dan Flynn (Executive Director, The UCD Olive Center), Bruce Golino (President, Santa Cruz Olive Nursery), Gregg Kelley (President, California Olive Ranch), Ed Stolman (Founding Partner, The Olive Press) and Liz Tagami (President, Tagami International).

When he was research­ing his New Yorker arti­cle, Mr. Mueller was struck by three key themes in the world of olive oil. The first is the con­tin­u­ing rela­tion­ship of olive oil and crime. The his­tory of olive oil fraud is as old as the story of olive oil itself. Regarding label­ing law, he said, The label needs to tell you some­thing reli­able about what is in the bot­tle — as it does with wine, where the peo­ple who enforce the laws carry guns.” He pointed out that there was stricter atten­tion to enforce­ment of olive oil laws in Ancient Rome than there is today; ancient amphorae bore not just the name of the pro­ducer, but the names and seals of the mul­ti­ple inspec­tors. Mueller reported that the FDA has said it is unable to enforce olive oil qual­ity stan­dards because olive oil is not mak­ing peo­ple sick.

The sec­ond theme is the res­o­nance of olive oil through­out his­tory. He recounted a rev­e­la­tion of the pro­found impor­tance of olive oil in the ancient Mediterranean while stand­ing atop a 115 ft tall mound of bro­ken oil amphorae called Monte Testaccio (Mount Potshard) in Rome. It was anal­o­gous to petro­leum in today’s world, lit­er­ally shap­ing the eco­nomic, mil­i­tary and social his­tory of the world.

The third theme is the provin­cial­ism that sur­rounds olive oil. The pro­duc­tion and use of olive oil tends to be pro­foundly bound, even suf­fo­cated, by tra­di­tion. Where Mueller’s neigh­bor in Liguria fol­lows mod­ern advances in his wine mak­ing, he con­tin­ues to pro­duce his olive oil exactly as his grand­fa­ther did. There is some­thing about olive oil that makes peo­ple irra­tional,” said Mueller.

Olive oil is asso­ci­ated with trans­for­ma­tion in the church; from con­ver­sion to extreme unc­tion it is a cat­a­lyst for change. Mueller sees this as some­thing the New World olive oil indus­try is well posi­tioned to do: effect change. The can-do” atti­tude and free­dom from the weight of tra­di­tion can be a big advan­tage, encour­ag­ing inno­va­tion and real progress.

He cau­tioned against falling into the trap of per­ni­cious provin­cial­ism, lack of trans­parency and ani­mos­ity that bur­dens the Mediterranean olive oil indus­try. During the panel dis­cus­sion, Gregg Kelley pointed to the impor­tance of the good qual­ity, afford­able olive oil pro­duced by the super-high-den­sity sys­tem in California as the first step in intro­duc­ing peo­ple to world of real extra vir­gin olive oil. Ed Stolman of The Olive Press under­lined this by empha­siz­ing that the small arti­san pro­ducer is not a com­peti­tor but a com­ple­ment to the large-scale pro­ducer. In a mes­sage that was echoed dur­ing the panel dis­cus­sion, Mueller said, Whatever advances the cause of excel­lent olive oil is good for all eth­i­cal pro­duc­ers, all around the world.”

Photos: A. Kicenik

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