Business

‘Extra Virginity’ Author’s Latest Investigation Raises Questions

Feb. 3, 2013
By Curtis Cord

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Tom Mueller (right) with International Olive Council Executive Director Jean-Louis Barjol.

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.

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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.

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“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.

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“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.”