Researchers Identify Main Types of Olive Oil Fraud, Propose Solutions

A scientific review identified the most prevalent types of olive oil fraud and proposed countermeasures including more cooperation among regulatory bodies.
Apr. 1, 2021
Costas Vasilopoulos

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Extra vir­gin olive oil’s high eco­nomic value and acclaim as a healthy prod­uct have made it a pop­u­lar tar­get of fraud, researchers from sev­eral European uni­ver­si­ties and insti­tu­tions said in a joint review.

Along with other food prod­ucts, includ­ing fish, milk, meat, grains, honey, cof­fee, wine and spices, olive oil is often the tar­get of var­i­ous illicit prac­tices in the European Union.

The level of atten­tion and the high request in terms of con­for­mity checks have cur­rently improved the qual­ity of the olive oil sold in the mar­ket in the last 30 years.- Enrico Valli, food sci­ence researcher, University of Bologna

The researchers reviewed the emerg­ing trends in olive oil fraud in the E.U. and other coun­tries as part of the European Commission’s Oleum pro­gram.

See Also: Dr. Gundry’s Olive Oil: Controversial Pitchman Peddles a Dose of Deception

The researchers gath­ered data from the Joint Research Center (JRC), the inter­nal sci­en­tific ser­vice of the European Commission, and sev­eral food fraud data­bases, such as the E.U.‘s RASFF sys­tem. They also sent sur­veys to pro­fes­sion­als and other mem­bers of the olive oil sec­tor.

Between September 2016 and December 2019, the JRC recorded 32 cases of fraud in the global olive oil indus­try.

  • Sixteen of the cases involved the sub­sti­tu­tion of olive oil with other oils.
  • Eleven cases con­cerned the mis­la­bel­ing of olive oils.
  • Four cases involved the false use of a geo­graph­i­cal indi­ca­tor.
  • Five cases con­cerned the dis­tri­b­u­tion of coun­ter­feit prod­ucts.
  • Six related to the dilu­tion of olive oils with other oils or infe­rior grades.
  • One case involved theft.

Twenty of the 32 cases occurred in Europe. The most com­mon infringe­ment prac­tices were mar­ket­ing vir­gin olive oil as extra vir­gin and sell­ing blended olive and veg­etable oils as pure olive oil.

The researchers also clar­i­fied that the num­ber of recorded cases was higher than the actual inci­dents of fraud since one inci­dent can belong to two dif­fer­ent cat­e­gories of infringe­ment. For exam­ple, seed oil sold as extra vir­gin olive oil is counted as both a case of mis­la­belling and sub­sti­tu­tion fraud.

In coun­tries out­side of the E.U., olive oil fraud usu­ally included dilu­tion and sub­sti­tu­tion of oils. For exam­ple, in Brazil, the mix­ing of olive oil with lam­pante or soy­bean oil was the most com­mon fraud­u­lent prac­tice.

Further exam­ples of fraud iden­ti­fied by the report included a 2017 inci­dent in which only six of the 35 sam­pled extra vir­gin olive oils sold in Danish super­mar­kets were extra vir­gin.

In Greece, on the other hand, the police arrested seven peo­ple and charged them with adding green dye to sun­flower oil and mar­ket­ing it as olive oil.

In Spain, the world’s largest olive oil coop­er­a­tive was fined in 2018 for fail­ing to pay the tar­iffs on imported olive oil from Tunisia, which was then blended with lower qual­ity olive oil and exported to the United States as vir­gin olive oil.

The same year, a ques­tion­naire addressed to mem­bers of the E.U. food fraud net­work oper­at­ing in the 28 mem­ber states, Switzerland, Norway and Iceland, asked for infor­ma­tion regard­ing com­mon and emerg­ing fraud inci­dents in the olive oil sec­tor.

The responses revealed that no fraud cases had been recorded in eight coun­tries dur­ing the last 12 months.

See Also: Quality Controls in Europe Need Improvement, Study Finds

In the rest of the coun­tries, the most com­monly reported fraud­u­lent prac­tices included mix­ing or mar­ket­ing vir­gin or extra vir­gin olive oil with lower qual­ity olive oils. Cases of mix­ing olive oil with refined and soft-deodor­ized oils were reported less fre­quently.

Apart from the decep­tive nature of the fraud itself, there are sel­dom any health-related issues for con­sumers when olive oil is mixed with veg­etable oils, the researchers noted.

However, there have been cases – most notably, the Spanish toxic oil syn­drome back in 1981 – when non-edi­ble rape­seed oil was sold as edi­ble rape­seed oil or olive oil. Consuming non-edi­ble rape­seed oil caused a severe mus­cu­loskele­tal con­di­tion in almost 20,000 peo­ple and resulted in 300 deaths.

One of the main fac­tors lead­ing to olive oil fraud iden­ti­fied by the researchers is the exist­ing price gaps between extra vir­gin and vir­gin olive oil and among extra vir­gin olive oils, depend­ing on their place of ori­gin.

Another fac­tor iden­ti­fied in the report is the rel­a­tively high qual­ity of the vir­gin and lam­pante olive oils pro­duced in the E.U., which makes them eas­ier to blend with extra vir­gin olive oils and sell very prof­itably as extra vir­gin.

The researchers also stressed that despite the cases of fraud­u­lent prac­tices in the olive oil sec­tor, the E.U.’s exist­ing reg­u­la­tory and con­trol frame­work results in sig­nif­i­cantly improved olive oil qual­ity and this needs to be com­mu­ni­cated to con­sumers.

The level of atten­tion and the high request in terms of con­for­mity checks have cur­rently improved the qual­ity of the olive oil sold in the mar­ket in the last 30 years,” Enrico Valli, a researcher at the University of Bologna’s depart­ment of agri­cul­tural and food sci­ences, told Olive Oil Times.

On the other hand, the results high­lighted in this sci­en­tific arti­cle, crossed with the responses obtained by the ques­tion­naires, indi­cate that to bet­ter guar­an­tee olive oil qual­ity and authen­tic­ity, there is still the need to ame­lio­rate con­for­mity checks, reduce the cases of dis­agree­ment in the clas­si­fi­ca­tions, develop improved robust ana­lyt­i­cal meth­ods and sup­port­ive screen­ing tools, in an attempt to try to be one step ahead of fraud­sters,” he added.

The researchers con­cluded that to bet­ter secure the qual­ity and authen­tic­ity of olive oil, the European Union, International Olive Council and other reg­u­la­tory bod­ies should col­lab­o­rate more closely.

The report rec­om­mended that they put for­ward a joint strat­egy to bring together sen­sory and instru­men­tal data and increase the pro­fi­ciency and coop­er­a­tion of sen­sory pan­els.





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