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New York Times Revises Olive Oil Fraud Infographic

Jan. 29, 2014
By Olive Oil Times Staff

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The New York Times made revi­sions to an info­graphic on olive oil fraud that crit­ics said was sen­sa­tional and inac­cu­rate in parts.

The changes were made on the New York Times web­site today, just after 8:00 PM Eastern Standard Time, or about four days after the orig­i­nal piece was posted.
See more: NY Times Olive Oil Fraud Infographic Timeline
Among the changes, Tom Mueller, author of the book Extra Virginity, was removed as the source of the arti­cle after Mueller insisted he was not respon­si­ble for the mis­in­for­ma­tion.

The slide that drew the most atten­tion was one which stated “69 per­cent of the olive oil for sale (in the U.S.) is doc­tored.” The Times changed it to “69 per­cent of imported olive oil labeled ‘extra virgin’ did not meet, in a taste test, the stan­dard for that label.”

Another slide orig­i­nally read “Bottles are labeled ‘Extra Virgin’ and branded with ‘Made in Italy’ (Oddly this is legal even if the oil does not come from Italy).”

It was changed to: “Bottles are labeled ‘Extra Virgin’ and labeled ‘Packed in Italy’ or ‘Imported from Italy.’ (Oddly, this is legal, even if the oil does not come from Italy — although the source coun­tries are sup­posed to be listed on the label.)”

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Another slide read, “The olive oil is cut with cheaper oil.” It was changed to : “At some refiner­ies the olive oil is cut with cheaper oil.”

Earlier, the illus­tra­tor of the arti­cle com­plained in a Twitter update that he was “get­ting let­ters on the nuclear mag­netic res­o­nance of olive oil from Italian chemists,” and yet he was “only an illus­tra­tor.” With Mueller removed as the arti­cle’s source, it remains unclear who wrote the piece.

An expla­na­tion of the cor­rec­tions had not yet appeared on the Times Corrections page.

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The cor­rec­tions could bring some relief to those who thought the arti­cle’s gen­er­al­iza­tions rein­forced stereo­types and indicted legions of honest Italian olive oil pro­duc­ers. But when news trav­els at the speed of light, four days is an eter­nity, and the state­ments the Times retracted today had already been broad­cast and shared around the world.

UPDATE (Feb. 25, 2014):

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The New York Times has appended the arti­cle with this expla­na­tion:

“An ear­lier ver­sion of this graphic con­tained sev­eral errors.

Olives that are used in sub­stan­dard oil are typ­i­cally taken to mills days, weeks or even months after being picked — not “within hours.”

The graphic con­flated two dubi­ous prac­tices that can be found in parts of the olive oil indus­try. Some pro­duc­ers mix olive oil with soy­bean or other cheap oils, while others mix veg­etable oils with beta carotene and chloro­phyll to pro­duce fake olive oil; the two prac­tices are not usu­ally com­bined.

Olive oil bot­tled in Italy and sold in the United States may be labeled “packed in Italy” or “imported from Italy” — not “pro­duced in Italy” — even if the oil does not come from Italy. (However, the source coun­tries are sup­posed to be listed on the label.)

A 2010 study by researchers at the University of California, Davis, found that 69 per­cent of imported olive oil labeled “extra virgin” did not meet, in an expert taste and smell test, the stan­dard for that label. The study sug­gested that the sub­stan­dard sam­ples had been oxi­dized; had been adul­ter­ated with cheaper refined olive oil; or were of poor qual­ity because they were made from dam­aged or over­ripe olives, or olives that had been improp­erly stored or processed — or some com­bi­na­tion of these flaws. It did not con­clude that 69 per­cent of olive oil for sale in the United States was doc­tored.

Finally, the graphic incor­rectly cited Tom Mueller, who runs the blog Truth in Olive Oil, as the source of the infor­ma­tion. While Mr. Mueller’s blog and other writ­ings were con­sulted in prepa­ra­tion of the graphic, sev­eral of his find­ings were mis­in­ter­preted.”

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