In 2010, the University of California at Davis Olive Center conducted a limited survey of some olive oils sourced from the shelves of California supermarkets and concluded that 69 percent of the imported oils that were labeled “extra virgin” were, in fact, a lower grade.
In the five years since the report was published, that 69 percent figure, based on a small sampling in a study backed by California producers would circle the globe, cited by countless media outlets and twisted into falsehoods, most notably by the New York Times in its infamous infographic, that had no author and was later recanted.
See more: NYT Infographic Timeline
As if 69 percent has lost its shock value in five short years, and as if to feed the ever-hungry needs of sensational journalism, we’re suddenly hearing a lot about 80 percent. Eighty percent is the new 69 percent when you really want to drill home how much olive oil is “fake” in the world.
Just yesterday, the North American Olive Oil Association sued TV’s ‘Dr. Oz’ for declaring on his program that 80 percent of extra virgin olive oils are fake, among other unsubstantiated statements made on his show.
How did we get here?
The Olive Oil Scam: If 80% Is Fake, Why Do You Keep Buying It? t.co/raEstcQvCI
— Carl Stevens (@CarlStevens007) November 17, 2016
Did you know that up to 80% of olive oil in the supermarket is fake? Many of these fraudulent products are… t.co/Bnycf95HJX
— Christie Stoll (@christiestoll) August 9, 2016
— Texas Angel Oil (@texasangeloil) May 18, 2016
— AlpVision (@AlpVision) May 17, 2016
This is alarming, if true: 80% of olive oil in U.S. may be fake t.co/8PhwId5hD7
— Humayun Chaudhry (@FedMed1) May 14, 2016
While it’s easy to overstate how much olive oil is substandard, it is difficult to overstate the damage throwing around numbers like this do to an industry, including the thousands of producers committed to quality.
In case you’re curious where the 80 percent came from, the first known sighting of the “4 out of 5” shoot from the hip was by Tom Mueller, the investigative journalist and “Extra Virginity” author who appeared on ‘60 Minutes’ last January.
That’s when Mueller told CBS News correspondent Bill Whittaker “up around 75 to 80 percent, easily” of extra virgin olive oils sold in the United States are “fraudulent.” Mueller later told me that when you factor in foodservice channels, he was confident in the figure. But no matter. Eighty percent was off and running.
Like the 140-character rants by our president-elect that managed to stick with slightly less than half of Americans, the “eighty percent fraudulent” meme is also causing people to turn their backs on a good thing in anger, with little patience for the finer points.
What are those finer points?
- There’s no data to support 80 percent of extra virgin olive oils sold in the U.S. are substandard, nevermind “fake” or “fraudulent.”
- Substandard olive oils (not as sexy as “fake,” but a much more accurate depiction) are likely simply “virgin” instead of “extra virgin,” which is still a healthier choice than other cooking oils and probably worth the $9 you paid anyway.
- The best way to know if your olive oil is really extra virgin is to learn how it should taste, and taste it for yourself. It’s not that hard.
Mislabeled olive oil is a problem that has been around a long time, and when we choose to buy extra virgin olive oil we deserve to get what we pay for. But never have there been as many efforts as there are now to combat unethical practices in olive oil producing regions around the world and the overall quality of olive oils available to us all is on a steep upward trend.
But change didn’t have to come with such collateral damage and we ought to stop throwing big numbers around with little evidence to support them.