Author Tom Mueller, whose controversial exposé, “Extra Virginity: The Sublime and Scandalous World of Olive Oil,” examined the darker side of the olive oil business, took a look back at the events of the last four years since the book’s release, including the U.S. International Trade Commission investigation, the New York Times “Extra Virgin Suicide” article, the debate over tasting panels, quality seals and standards.
Mueller spoke with Olive Oil Times publisher Curtis Cord recently for a segment of Cord’s On Olive Oil podcast.
Here are some of the highlights from the interview:
On his 2012 book, Extra Virginity
The danger with exposés is that a certain number of people just tune out that entire frequency. I’ve had people say, ‘Oh boy that olive oil world. That certainly is a corrupt world. I’ve just stopped buying olive oil. I buy something else.’ I think, oh no, no. Slap forehead with palm.
On the USITC investigation
It becomes a point of reference for anyone who wants to take on seriously the question of what do we do next. They questioned people that I suggested they talk to, but also people who disagreed violently with me. It’s going to be now and in the future a data point that is difficult to ignore.
On consumer education
As soon as two or three consumers in a given store go the manager and say, ‘Look, this says extra virgin and says that it was bottled three years ago. It’s clearly rancid, clearly fusty. That’s illegal. This is not extra virgin. I want my money back.’ That manager is going to say, (A) ‘Here’s your money,’ and (B) ‘Someone tell me about this now. I need to know more.’ Until that happens, many laws are not worth the paper they’re written on.
On the New York Times article “Extra Virgin Suicide”
I felt first of all like an idiot for having said, ‘Hey great work,’ and then having to go back on that. I’m super disappointed in the New York Times for not doing the right thing, first of all, in fact-checking and, second of all, in retraction or correction.
On olive oil sensory panels
Our olfactory equipment is far more sensitive than anything science has produced so far. The decades of hard work that have gone into developing the taste panel and the statistical analysis that goes into processing the work of the taste panel is pretty much bulletproof. The taste test cannot be fiddled.
On the “Made in Italy” brand
I think unless Italy as a country stands up and says, ‘Look. It’s time for a change here. It’s time to clear our names,’ then absolutely substance is going to trump style sooner or later. If you’re a savvy consumer, it’s more like an insult. It’s more like someone is trying to take you for a ride than to actually sell you an honest product.
On global standards
On the one hand you have a massive industry that’s working on a commodity food and lowest common denominator and quality and lowest price. On the other, in certain groups you have people who are saying, ‘Look, we have excellent oil that we make ourselves, why should we have unfair competition from cheap low-grade imports?’
The problem is that the consumer once again is caught in this crossfire of information and misinformation.
On banning cruets in restaurants
You have to guarantee what’s in the bottle first. Frankly, if it’s bad oil that goes into a restaurant, it doesn’t really help your consumer much. The seal that protects bad oil is not worth the plastic it’s made out of.
On U.S. enforcement
I understand that the FDA does have a number of other issues that they need to address. Having said that again, this is a paradigm food. This is a symbolic food. Both for the Mediterranean and for America.
On quality seal programs
We already have a pretty good definition. We already have the basis of a strong, legal standard of excellent food. I don’t know how many people they’re going to be able to reach. I personally would give them a big megaphone, but I’m not in the megaphone business.
People have even proposed extra-extra virgin. We’re really getting silly here I think in simply not applying what we have in front of us.