`EVOO Research Hits a Wall in Greece - Olive Oil Times

EVOO Research Hits a Wall in Greece

Feb. 19, 2015
Athan Gadanidis

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I have been report­ing for over a year now on the con­tro­versy regard­ing the imple­men­ta­tion of EU label­ing reg­u­la­tion 432/2012 in Greece. It has been a Herculean task attempt­ing to unravel this Gordian knot of mis­in­for­ma­tion and sci­en­tific obfuscation. 

My inves­ti­ga­tion has con­tin­ued and has gone beyond the events I reported in pre­vi­ous arti­cles. I have come face to face with the con­flict­ing inter­ests, polit­i­cal inter­ven­tions, pro­fes­sional jeal­ousies, and pos­si­ble sci­en­tific mis­con­duct and fraud within the EU sci­en­tific community.

When I began this jour­ney, I assumed that sci­en­tists were seek­ers of truth and inno­va­tion. At least that was my expe­ri­ence up until then. In mod­ern day Greece how­ever some aca­d­e­mics who are well con­nected by fam­ily rela­tions or by polit­i­cal affil­i­a­tions receive pref­er­en­tial treat­ment even when their work is sub­stan­dard or even down­right fraud­u­lent. There is a great deal of money given to a small num­ber of well-con­nected aca­d­e­mics in Greece. Recently it was reported that mil­lions of euros in EU grants for research were fraud­u­lently obtained. The names of the reserchers involved have not been published.

Personal aca­d­e­mic rival­ries were revealed when a let­ter was sent to the pre­vi­ous pres­i­dent of the Greek Parliament by three promi­nent sci­en­tists; Dimitrios Boskou, Maria Tsimidou and Alexios-Leandros Skaltsounis on June 18, 2014. They objected to the ques­tion that was posed to Minister of Agriculture Athanasios Tsaftaris last year by a few mem­bers of par­lia­ment relat­ing to the EU health claim label­ing reg­u­la­tion 432/2012.

Here is an excerpt:

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To our sur­prise, we dis­cov­ered that an inter­na­tional web­site (oliveoiltimes.com) reported that a group of Greek elected offi­cials sub­mit­ted a ques­tion in Parliament, which is asso­ci­ated with the sci­en­tific analy­sis (NMR) to detect two spe­cific sub­stances (oleo­can­thal and olea­cein) in vir­gin olive oil and asks the com­pe­tent author­i­ties — namely EFET (Hellenic National Food Safety) and the Ministry of Agricultural Development and Food — to endorse a sci­en­tific analy­sis (NMR) in order to show the supe­ri­or­ity of cer­tain oils pro­duced in Greece. Such actions we think are extremely mis­guided, sci­en­tif­i­cally vague, cre­at­ing great con­fu­sion among pro­duc­ers and many ques­tions about their motivation.”

What moti­vated these three sci­en­tists to write a let­ter ques­tion­ing the moti­va­tions of elected offi­cials took a while to fig­ure out. However, what moti­vated the elected offi­cials is more obvious. 

The ques­tion posed by a group of par­lia­men­tar­i­ans act­ing on behalf of olive grow­ers was ask­ing for clar­i­fi­ca­tion on why EFET refused to imple­ment the reg­u­la­tion Tsaftaris him­self had so enthu­si­as­ti­cally embraced ear­lier. The NMR would be the per­fect instru­ment to use for this pur­pose. But it needed a polit­i­cal deci­sion and sup­port in order for the NMR to be more accessible. 

The global sci­en­tific com­mu­nity has enthu­si­as­ti­cally embraced the NMR method for accu­rately mea­sur­ing indi­vid­ual phe­no­lic com­pounds but in Greece it has been ignored. Why? Because there is a great deal of EU fund­ing at stake. The EU has been gen­er­ously fund­ing Greek sci­en­tists to find new meth­ods to mea­sure phe­no­lic com­pounds in olive oil for the pur­pose of imple­ment­ing the EU label­ing reg­u­la­tion 432/2012, but the NMR was already invented with­out any research fund­ing from the EU. 

The fol­low­ing health claim is allowed on labels: Olive oil polyphe­nols con­tribute to the pro­tec­tion of blood lipids from oxida­tive stress. The claim may be used only for olive oil which con­tains at least 5 mg of hydrox­y­ty­rosol and its deriv­a­tives (e.g. oleu­ropein com­plex and tyrosol) per 20 g of olive oil. In order to bear the claim infor­ma­tion shall be pro­vided to the con­sumer that the ben­e­fi­cial effect is obtained with a daily intake of 20 gm of olive oil.

Contrary to the above health claim allowed by the EU, the three sci­en­tists who wrote the let­ter (Boskou, Tsimidou and Skaltsounis) claimed that it was not pos­si­ble to quan­tify the health ben­e­fits of indi­vid­ual phe­no­lic com­pounds in olive oil:

The issue raised in the Greek Parliament is sci­en­tif­i­cally com­plex and what is the most effi­cient, reli­able and eco­nom­i­cal method of analy­sis or which sub­stances should be iden­ti­fied, is some­thing that should be answered by the sci­en­tific com­mu­nity rather than answered by mem­bers of Parliament. Olive oil is very rich in bioac­tive com­po­nents, a class which are chem­i­cally related bio­phe­nols with hydrox­y­ty­rosol and tyrosol and it is not pos­si­ble to quan­tify the con­tri­bu­tion of each indi­vid­ual com­pound in the over­all ben­e­fi­cial effect on health.” 

But the EU had already quan­ti­fied the health ben­e­fits of hydrox­y­ty­rosol and its deriv­a­tives found in olive oil. This was the basis of the health claim allowed on the label of high polyphe­nol EVOOs that qual­ify. In fact Tsaftaris was asked because he had author­ity over EFET amid com­plaints that EFET was not allow­ing the EU health claim reg­u­la­tion to be implemented. 

What makes this even more strange is the three sci­en­tists who signed this let­ter of protest are well respected in the field of olive oil research. This made me very curi­ous. So I looked into their inter­twined rela­tion­ships. Tsaftaris was also a pro­fes­sor at Aristotelian University in Thessaloniki where Boskou and Tsimidou are head­quar­tered. Could they have influ­enced EFET to flip flop on imple­ment­ing the regulation?

I was sur­prised to see Skaltsounis name on the let­ter. Skaltsounis is the head of the depart­ment of Pharmacognosy at the University of Athens where Prokopios Magiatis dis­cov­ered the NMR method of accu­rately mea­sur­ing indi­vid­ual phe­no­lic com­pounds in olive oil. Why would he not want the NMR to be used to mea­sure hydrox­y­ty­rosol and its deriv­a­tives in olive oil in order to com­ply with the reg­u­la­tion? And why were these three sci­en­tists get­ting the pres­i­dent of the Greek Parliament involved, who has no author­ity or knowl­edge on such mat­ters? Did they believe they had that much polit­i­cal power? 

My inves­ti­ga­tion yielded a num­ber of irreg­u­lar­i­ties and vicious rival­ries hid­ing behind this par­tic­u­lar let­ter. But first a recap of events that led up to it and some addi­tional background. 

After the ini­tial ques­tion Tsaftaris con­sulted with EFET and the answer was: oleo­can­thal and olea­cein can­not be mea­sured and included in order to qual­ify for the health claim because they are not specif­i­cally men­tioned in the reg­u­la­tion.” Upon hear­ing what I thought to be a mis­guided and unsci­en­tific deci­sion, I imme­di­ately called and wrote a let­ter to the EU and asked for clar­i­fi­ca­tion on what spe­cific deriv­a­tives of hydrox­y­ty­rosol should be mea­sured in order to qual­ify for the health claim. I also wrote to EFET explain­ing the reg­u­la­tion and mak­ing a case for the inclu­sion of oleo­can­thal and olea­cein. The reg­u­la­tion referred to deriv­a­tives of hydrox­y­ty­rosol such as, tyrosol etc. An chemist with knowl­edge of olive oil chem­istry would know what other deriv­a­tives they were refer­ring to. Even if they did not know, all they had to do is google it like I did. 

Consequently EFET reversed their deci­sion and con­firmed that indeed oleo­can­thal and olea­cein should be mea­sured in order to qual­ify for the health claim. Upon hear­ing this I imme­di­ately sent a let­ter to the EU inform­ing them that EFET had accepted oleo­can­thal and olea­cein and there­fore their opin­ion was no longer needed. I also added: my under­stand­ing is that EFET as the author­ity over food qual­ity and safety within Greece has juris­dic­tion to inter­pret how EU reg­u­la­tions should be imple­mented.” I asked them to con­firm that fact. 

The irony of this sit­u­a­tion is that a reporter armed with a pas­sion for read­ing research papers and legal briefs with no for­mal chem­istry or legal back­ground, would have to explain the chem­istry behind EU reg­u­la­tions and legal stand­ing of EFET in rela­tion to the EU. Shortly after I pub­lished the pos­i­tive deci­sion, EFET flip-flopped once again and asked the EU for clar­i­fi­ca­tion on whether oleo­can­thal should be included. 

This was a dev­as­tat­ing turn of events for Greek olive oil, which con­tains more oleo­can­thal than olea­cein. A favor­able deci­sion by EFET would have been a very pos­i­tive devel­op­ment for an indus­try sorely in need of good news. 

In the mean­time, I had to resend my let­ter to the EU sev­eral times because they were reor­ga­niz­ing their offices and depart­ments. The EU finally answered my ques­tion after a year’s delay and informed me that indeed National Food Safety agen­cies in EU mem­ber coun­tries have full author­ity to inter­pret and imple­ment EU reg­u­la­tions. The only time the EU gets involved when there is a com­plaint, in which case they try to medi­ate but the ulti­mate deci­sion is deter­mined by the EU court of justice. 

Upon receiv­ing the email I wrote back and asked if there was a com­plaint made against EFET by any other coun­try or indi­vid­ual. They pro­vided me with a link where all the com­plaints are reg­is­tered. I ver­i­fied there were no com­plaints made against EFET on this, or any other issue in fact. 

This led me to the obvi­ous con­clu­sion that the com­plaint that caused EFET to change their opin­ion repeat­edly orig­i­nated from inside Greece. But who was respon­si­ble for stop­ping a reg­u­la­tion from being imple­mented that would have such a pos­i­tive effect on Greek olive oil? 

I decided to meet and inter­view the peo­ple who authored the let­ter, start­ing with Mr. Skaltsounis as he was in Athens and I had writ­ten to Boskou and Tsimidou pre­vi­ously and my emails went unan­swered and phone calls were not returned. Tsimidou was also work­ing on a new method to mea­sure phe­no­lic com­pounds in olive oil and had repeat­edly ignored the NMR method. 

Skaltsounis read­ily agreed to an inter­view. As the head of the Pharmacognocy depart­ment at the University of Athens, Skaltsounis was in the same depart­ment where Magiatis and Melliou con­ducted their research. I met Skaltsounis at his lab at the University.

Skaltsounis had recently pub­lished a paper where he announced the dis­cov­ery of a new CE (Capillary Electrophoresis) method to mea­sure oleo­can­thal and olea­cein. Skaltsounis claimed this new method was ver­i­fied by HPLC and he cited the Magiatis paper on NMR as proof of its valid­ity. I asked him if Magiatis or Melliou ver­i­fied his method using NMR. They do not know what they are doing,” he said emphatically.

Not want­ing to turn this inter­view into a debate I allowed him to con­tinue. I wanted to find out what was behind his attacks on two sci­en­tists who work in his own depart­ment. I have seen sci­en­tific rival­ries before but this one was personal. 

Skaltsounis gen­er­ously showed me around his lab and all his research work in progress. He hap­pily posed for pic­tures while claim­ing not to seek out pub­lic­ity like some oth­ers.” An obvi­ous ref­er­ence to the pub­lic­ity Magiatis and Melliou have received inter­na­tion­ally for their work with Quantitative NMR.

Here is an excerpt from his research paper:

To the best of our knowl­edge, here we describe the first val­i­dated CE-method suit­able for the simul­ta­ne­ous, quan­ti­ta­tive deter­mi­na­tion of oleo­can­thal and olea­cein in olive oil. So far only one assay has been reported ful­fill­ing these cri­te­ria (Karkoula, Magiatis et al.,2012). Compared to the lat­ter, which uti­lized quan­ti­ta­tive NMR, the CE assay is much sim­pler and eco­nomic, yet the quan­ti­ta­tive results are com­pa­ra­ble and equally repro­ducible… Other, more con­ven­tional approaches like HPLC require longer analy­sis time (40 ver­sus 15 min) and facil­i­tate the deter­mi­na­tion of oleo­can­thal only (Impellizzeri & Lin, 2006).”

There is some doubt whether the results are indeed accu­rate and repro­ducible as they use HPLC as one of their val­i­da­tion meth­ods. HPLC has already been refuted by Magiatis in a study of the HPLC method and pub­lished it in a peer reviewed jour­nal. Simply stated, oleo­can­thal and olea­cein react with the methanol or/and water used in HPLC caus­ing inac­cu­rate mea­sure­ments. In order for the Skaltsounis CE method to work, pure oleo­can­thal and olea­cein are needed as ref­er­ence standards.

We are try­ing to pro­duce pure oleo­can­thal and olea­cein here in our lab. We plan to have them be the first val­i­dated and accepted pure forms of oleo­can­thal and olea­cein,” Skaltsounis told me. 

So you will then be the provider of oleo­can­thal and olea­cein for all the tests that would be con­ducted by this new method?” I asked. Yes of course” he said. We have another lab in the out­skirts of Athens where we con­duct our work as well in co-oper­a­tion with the University,” he added. 

So with your CE method would you be able to mea­sure oleo­can­thal and olea­cein in order to sub­stan­ti­ate the EU reg­u­la­tion?” I asked. Well we do not know which ones to mea­sure because they change over time.” he explained.

He showed me a graph that illus­trated how oleo­can­thal and olea­cein revert to their orig­i­nal hydrox­y­ty­rosol and tyrosol. That sim­ply proves that oleo­can­thal and olea­cein are deriv­a­tives of hydrox­y­ty­rosol and tyrosol.” I remarked. But Skaltsounis just shook his head. 

It became obvi­ous to this reporter why Skaltsounis would not want this reg­u­la­tion to be imple­mented using NMR method of measurement.

Greece is in the midst of a brain drain that forces the bright­est and most tal­ented sci­en­tists to seek work abroad. But it gets worse. Greece seems to be also suf­fer­ing an intel­lec­tual prop­erty drain. 

The Greek sci­en­tific com­mu­nity con­tin­ues to inno­vate and invent new meth­ods and patentable ideas and dis­cov­er­ies. But what hap­pens to them? Where do they go? Who gets the credit and who benefits? 

I learned from another pro­fes­sor that Magiatis had lodged an offi­cial com­plaint with the University of Athens about a patent Skaltsounis had reg­is­tered in the US patent office in col­lab­o­ra­tion with the City of Hope can­cer research facil­ity in California. Magiatis claims he was one of the inven­tors but he was not cred­ited and nei­ther was the University of Athens. I asked Magiatis about this and he con­firmed that he did indeed file the complaint.

The com­plaint lodged against Skaltsounis regard­ing the patent rights of Magiatis and the University of Athens still sits in a desk some­where. Two suc­ces­sive deans at the University have taken no action to inves­ti­gate the com­plaint of sci­en­tific mis­con­duct against Skaltsounis made over a year ago. It sits unan­swered and unin­ves­ti­gated like so many other things in Greece. 

It should be noted that Skaltsounis‘s brother is a Supreme court judge in Greece. It has been sug­gested per­haps this is the rea­son for the inac­tion. Perhaps the author­i­ties are not eager to inves­ti­gate pos­si­ble mis­con­duct against the brother of a Supreme Court judge. 

I sent a copy of this arti­cle to Boskou, Tsimidou and Skaltsounis but received no reply or comment. 

The fact is, NMR not only mea­sures oleo­can­thal and olea­cein but a num­ber of other phe­no­lic com­pounds all in one pass and within 3 min­utes. There is no ongo­ing income stream from the NMR method for the sci­en­tists who dis­cov­ered it. There is a glut of NMR equip­ment sit­ting idle or in uni­ver­si­ties and research labs inter­na­tion­ally. Would it not be bet­ter to put them to use instead of try­ing to develop another method that only mea­sures two phe­no­lic com­pounds and requires the pur­chase of pure oleo­can­thal and oleacein?

The IOC is about to decide on what method they should offi­cially accept for the accu­rate mea­sure­ment of indi­vid­ual phe­no­lic com­pounds in olive oil. The answer is obvious.



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