Opinions

80 Percent is the New 69 Percent

Nov. 30, 2016
By Curtis Cord

Recent News

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?


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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.

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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.