China is scrutinizing olive oil arriving from Italy while Spain raises fears of wider market manipulation in the wake of new claims of fraud involving Italian olive oil.

The Shanghai Daily reported that entry-exit authorities are “inspecting olive oil imported from Italy after the Italian agriculture federation said unscrupulous producers were mixing in cheaper oil from Greece, Spain, Morocco and Tunisia and passing it off as top-end extra virgin oil.”

And Spain’s El Pais quoted Clara Aguilera, agriculture minister in the Andalusian regional government, as saying she fears Italy may be engaging in “stage-management, as there are many vested interests at play.” She also pointed to a possible “strategy” to control markets and noted the weakness of Spain’s highly-fragmented production sector compared to Italy’s strong olive oil lobby, the paper reported.

Meanwhile, Rafael Civantos of the COAG farmers’ union in Spain said it’s “common knowledge” that Italy passes off Spanish olive oil as its own because “its figures for olive oil production, consumption and imports don’t add up.”

Rafael Civantos

It’s an issue that also raised eyebrows within the European Commission’s advisory group on olives and derived products earlier in 2011. The minutes note: “Concerning figures on the Italian market, a discrepancy between production figures and estimated production figures (was) observed for which participants asked for clarification. Moreover, a difference between the figures presented by the Commission and what is observed in the field was noted and voiced.”

And in its breaking news article of the latest probes of Italian olive oil, Italy’s La Reppublica itself asked, “Why, in comparison with the 250,000 tons of olive oil we export, do we import 470,000? Where do they go? How are they mixed?”

It’s a question, the newspaper reported, was being probed by Italian customs agents, fraud squad detectives and finance police, with the help of Coldiretti, one of the country’s main agricultural organizations.The investigation had already found that four out of five bottles of olive oil sold by Italy contain olive oil from other countries, usually from Spain, Tunisia, Greece or Morocco.

Coldiretti spokesman Stefano Masini said that given the extraordinary scale of the fraud it was time for the government “to act against the agromafia with new measures.” “This is not just about simple sales fraud, it involves criminal organizations that control prices and manage the entire chain from production to distribution,” he said.

News of the probe has provoked international debate among consumers and producers, such as at the UK’s Telegraph, which reported: “Four out of five bottles of ‘Italian’ olive oil are being adulterated with lower quality oil from other Mediterranean countries.”

But Rafael Sánchez de Puerta, president of the EU farming lobby Copa-Cogeca’s working group on olive oil and table olives, stressed that the issue was more one of labeling than of quality.

“Everyone knew” that Italy bottled and exported more olive oil than it produced but any alleged fraud involved claims of the “denomination (of origin), not of the quality” of the oil, he said.

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