A string of events in the Italian olive oil sector making headlines around the world might seem unconnected to the casual reader, but they form an all-too-familiar pattern to Tom Mueller, the investigative journalist and author of “Extra Virginity: The Sublime and Scandalous World of Olive Oil.”
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Writing on his Truth in Olive Oil blog, Mueller called the multi-staged battle raging in Italy “part of a larger world war over food authenticity.”
All this probably sounds bizarre and irrelevant, especially if you live outside Italy.
In December, anti-mafia investigators seized 7,000 tons of olive oil in Puglia labeled “100 Italian” that was found to be from North Africa and the Middle East. Mueller said his sources had confirmed a mafia connection with at least one of the companies being investigated. That explained, according to Mueller, why the probe is being led by “an elite corps of prosecutors that specializes in fighting organized crime syndicates.”
The investigation also led the mafia to seek a hedge against the possible fallout, according to Mueller. “As if to underscore the political clout of some of the accused, just before Christmas, members of the Italian Ministry of Agriculture, including the head of their investigative corps, tried to push through new legislation that would have de-criminalized the sale of fake ‘Made in Italy’ olive oil, punishing it instead with a modest fine.”
See more: Listen to an Interview with Tom Mueller on the 'On Olive Oil' Podcast
Two days before a widely anticipated airing of a ’60 Minutes’ segment on mafia involvement in the Italian agriculture sector, Mueller wrote that even the calamitous outbreak of the bacterium Xylella fastidiosa could be traced to a place where ancient trees protected by law from being felled stood in the way of the construction of a new resort development, lending his support behind growing suspicion that organized crime was at the root of that crisis, too.
“Suddenly there would be more elbow (or hotel) room in several lovely seaside locales in Puglia,” Mueller wrote.
“A mysterious plant disease, a suspect legal maneuver, anti-mafia investigators stumbling into 7,000 tons of fishy olive oil, famous oil brands accused once more of passing off low-grade product as the Real McCoy . . . all this probably sounds bizarre and irrelevant, especially if you live outside Italy.”
But Italy is far from the only place where corruption and profiteering lie at the heart of the food chain, even when an estimated 12 million Americans might get a sense the problem is uniquely Italian tonight watching ’60 Minutes.’
“The unseemly spectacle of fraud that’s playing out right now in Puglia, Turin and Rome also happens in countless other foods in other countries,” Mueller said, “where no prosecutor, police investigator or politician raises a hand, word of the shenanigans never gets out, and business continues as usual.”