Tom Mueller, whose investigations of the olive oil industry for The New Yorker and his 2011 book, Extra Virginity, the Sublime and Scandalous World of Olive Oil, helped give rise to a global discussion of olive oil quality, has stirred a new debate on his blog, this time over his critical look at an American olive oil retailer.
The subject of Mueller’s latest exposé is the Tubac Olive Oil Company, based in Arizona, which distributes olive oils through a network of stores named The Olive & The Grape, and other outlets. The company is owned by Sunil Patel.
Mueller, who lives in Italy, said he bought fourteen samples of olive oil from three of the chain’s stores in Arizona and sent them to a laboratory in Australia to undergo a battery of chemical and sensory tests.
The results indicated, as Mueller reported in a blog post, that ten of the fourteen olive oils collected were not extra virgin, and five were found by taste testers to be unfit for consumption.
In his book, and repeatedly in public appearances since its publication, Mueller has championed a California-based olive oil distributor, Veronica Foods, which is considered the leading supplier to the new ‘olive oil bar’ ‑themed boutiques springing up across the country, stocking over 300 such stores. On Mueller’s website, 306 of the 415 retailers on his list of “personal suggestions for places to get great oil in America” are Veronica Foods-supplied stores.
A debate has raged in recent days on his “Truth in Olive Oil” blog, in emails and social networks stirred by readers questioning why Mueller chose to target an obvious Veronica Foods competitor, why a freelance author would spend more than $5,000 to test olive oils a world away on a hunch, and why he did not test any samples from other stores, such as those supplied by Veronica Foods.
While much of the feedback in the way of comments on Mueller’s blog was supportive of his latest effort to uncover olive oil fraud, others were more skeptical.
“While I applaud your search for the best oils, I am concerned that you continue to be so pro-Veronica Foods,” one reader wrote. “Their tactics with the small business owner is getting them sued. I must wonder, since they fund your film project, if you might be going after her nemesis, the one (Veronica) told, ‘I have every intent of putting you out of business.’ Sunil used to work for her before going into business for himself. Are you trying to help her with this?”
Others wondered why Mueller, who has uncovered wrongdoing and greed at the highest levels of corporations and government, suddenly seemed to be playing small ball.
“I’d encourage Tom to keep working to expose fraud in the olive oil industry but to do it at the processing level where it really can do the most damage,” a reader suggested. “It is also important that Tom remains completely impartial in judging the olive oil industry. He really can’t be aligned with a supplier or he risks losing his credibility and the impact he can have on the olive oil industry.”
Others were less critical. “It is always a pleasure to read and review the results of your untiring work to expose those who would prefer to profit from misleading health-conscious consumers of premium EVO brands and producers,” one commenter said. Some of the comments were left by retailers in the Veronica Foods network.
The running debate has some riveted. “I am following the debate / mudslinging / sycophancy with great fascination and horror,” an industry insider said Saturday.
Some viewed Mueller’s latest project as a possible misstep by a high-profile activist who has circled the world to speak out against the dark side of the olive oil industry, and who will be meeting this week with investigators for the United States International Trade Commission looking into olive oil quality and competitiveness.
An olive oil industry researcher put criticism of Mueller’s methods bluntly, saying “Bad design in the experiment. Too many variables, no control, and conflict of interest every which way you look,” in an opinion echoed by others over the weekend.
“I think, as an independent journalist, that I can praise good work when I see it, without incurring accusations of unseemly favoritism,” Mueller said Friday. “Or rather, I believe that calling attention to good work, and bad, is what good journalism is all about.”