An 'Interactive' Lesson in Olive Oil Fraud

Jan. 26, 2014
By Curtis Cord

Recent News

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.”

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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