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An 'Interactive' Lesson in Olive Oil Fraud

Oversimplification of complicated topics for short attention spans can disguise what is, all too often, just more misinformation.
Illustration by Nicholas Blechman
Jan. 26, 2014
Curtis Cord

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Illus­tra­tion by Nicholas Blech­man, New York Times

Info­graph­ics and so-called inter­ac­tives” aim to present com­pli­cated sub­jects with aes­thetic sim­plic­ity. All too often, though, their beauty comes at a cost. Like the infor­ma­tional lim­i­ta­tions of the 140-char­ac­ter Twit­ter update, these swi­peable car­toons leave read­ers with an incom­plete, and often inac­cu­rate, under­stand­ing of top­ics that deserve a closer look.

Yes­ter­day, the New York Times offered a slideshow titled Extra Vir­gin Sui­cide,” that pre­sented 15 cards on the process of large-scale adul­ter­ation in the olive oil indus­try in Italy.

See more: NY Times Olive Oil Fraud Info­graphic Time­line

Hours after it was pub­lished, I asked four peo­ple at a din­ner party to swipe through the Times piece on my phone, and tell me what they thought the take away” of the fea­ture was. This was what they said:

  • Don’t buy Ital­ian olive oil.”
  • Basi­cally, every­one in the olive oil busi­ness is a crook.”
  • Makes me want to use another kind of oil, like grape­seed.”
  • I had no idea most olive oil is cut with chem­i­cals. It makes me sick.”

Although the sec­ond slide of the pre­sen­ta­tion con­tains the crit­i­cal qual­i­fier much” Ital­ian olive oil, some read­ers were clearly left with an impres­sion that all Ital­ian pro­duc­ers work this way.

One of the cards in the series said approx­i­mately 69 per­cent of the olive oil for sale in the U.S. is doc­tored.” It was pre­sum­ably refer­ring to the 2010 UC Davis study that found sam­ples of ten imported brands labeled extra vir­gin in three Cal­i­for­nia super­mar­kets (not exactly a national sam­pling) to be sub­stan­dard — not that they were inten­tion­ally doc­tored.”

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Nicholas Blech­man

The arti­cle cites Extra Vir­gin­ity” author Tom Mueller as its source.

The Times applies a loose def­i­n­i­tion to the term inter­ac­tive,” appar­ently refer­ring to the way we get to click from one slide to the next, and back if we want. There is no way for read­ers to actu­ally com­ment on the piece (and there cer­tainly would be com­ments).

Over the past few years, bewil­dered con­sumers have been bom­barded by con­fus­ing mes­sages from olive oil evan­ge­lists and neg­a­tive cam­paigns by groups of pro­duc­ers in their zeal­ous pur­suit of mar­ket share.

Sim­ple, infor­ma­tive mes­sages about olive oil qual­ity, ben­e­fits and uses will even­tu­ally clear the con­fu­sion and fos­ter greater con­sump­tion of this vital, healthy food.

How­ever, in efforts to boil down such a com­pli­cated topic for increas­ingly short atten­tion spans, there is the dan­ger that over­sim­pli­fi­ca­tion can dis­guise what is often just more mis­in­for­ma­tion.


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