‘Extra Virginity’ Author, Tom Mueller, On Olive Oil

Nov. 27, 2015
By Olive Oil Times Staff

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Author Tom Mueller, whose con­tro­ver­sial exposé, “Extra Virginity: The Sublime and Scandalous World of Olive Oil,” exam­ined the darker side of the olive oil busi­ness, took a look back at the events of the last four years since the book’s release, includ­ing the U.S. International Trade Commission inves­ti­ga­tion, the New York Times “Extra Virgin Suicide” arti­cle, the debate over tast­ing panels, qual­ity seals and stan­dards.

Mueller spoke with Olive Oil Times pub­lisher Curtis Cord recently for a seg­ment of Cord’s On Olive Oil pod­cast.

Here are some of the high­lights from the inter­view:

On his 2012 book, Extra Virginity

The danger with exposés is that a cer­tain number of people just tune out that entire fre­quency. I’ve had people say, ‘Oh boy that olive oil world. That cer­tainly is a cor­rupt world. I’ve just stopped buying olive oil. I buy some­thing else.’ I think, oh no, no. Slap fore­head with palm.

On the USITC inves­ti­ga­tion

It becomes a point of ref­er­ence for anyone who wants to take on seri­ously the ques­tion of what do we do next. They ques­tioned people that I sug­gested they talk to, but also people who dis­agreed vio­lently with me. It’s going to be now and in the future a data point that is dif­fi­cult to ignore.

On con­sumer edu­ca­tion

As soon as two or three con­sumers in a given store go the man­ager and say, ‘Look, this says extra virgin and says that it was bot­tled three years ago. It’s clearly rancid, clearly fusty. That’s ille­gal. This is not extra virgin. I want my money back.’ That man­ager is going to say, (A) ‘Here’s your money,’ and (B) ‘Someone tell me about this now. I need to know more.’ Until that hap­pens, many laws are not worth the paper they’re writ­ten on.

On the New York Times arti­cle “Extra Virgin Suicide”

I felt first of all like an idiot for having said, ‘Hey great work,’ and then having to go back on that. I’m super dis­ap­pointed in the New York Times for not doing the right thing, first of all, in fact-check­ing and, second of all, in retrac­tion or cor­rec­tion.

On olive oil sen­sory panels

Our olfac­tory equip­ment is far more sen­si­tive than any­thing sci­ence has pro­duced so far. The decades of hard work that have gone into devel­op­ing the taste panel and the sta­tis­ti­cal analy­sis that goes into pro­cess­ing the work of the taste panel is pretty much bul­let­proof. The taste test cannot be fid­dled.

On the “Made in Italy” brand

I think unless Italy as a coun­try stands up and says, ‘Look. It’s time for a change here. It’s time to clear our names,’ then absolutely sub­stance is going to trump style sooner or later. If you’re a savvy con­sumer, it’s more like an insult. It’s more like some­one is trying to take you for a ride than to actu­ally sell you an honest prod­uct.

On global stan­dards

On the one hand you have a mas­sive indus­try that’s work­ing on a com­mod­ity food and lowest common denom­i­na­tor and qual­ity and lowest price. On the other, in cer­tain groups you have people who are saying, ‘Look, we have excel­lent oil that we make our­selves, why should we have unfair com­pe­ti­tion from cheap low-grade imports?’

The prob­lem is that the con­sumer once again is caught in this cross­fire of infor­ma­tion and mis­in­for­ma­tion.

On ban­ning cruets in restau­rants

You have to guar­an­tee what’s in the bottle first. Frankly, if it’s bad oil that goes into a restau­rant, it doesn’t really help your con­sumer much. The seal that pro­tects bad oil is not worth the plas­tic it’s made out of.

On U.S. enforce­ment

I under­stand that the FDA does have a number of other issues that they need to address. Having said that again, this is a par­a­digm food. This is a sym­bolic food. Both for the Mediterranean and for America.

On qual­ity seal pro­grams

We already have a pretty good def­i­n­i­tion. We already have the basis of a strong, legal stan­dard of excel­lent food. I don’t know how many people they’re going to be able to reach. I per­son­ally would give them a big mega­phone, but I’m not in the mega­phone busi­ness.

People have even pro­posed extra-extra virgin. We’re really get­ting silly here I think in simply not apply­ing what we have in front of us.

Listen to the com­plete inter­view on iTunes, Soundcloud or the On Olive Oil web­site.