Oil on Troubled Waters

The New York Times no less, has earned the wraith of none other than Fabrizio Nardoni who is our esteemed Minister of Agriculture here in Puglia. I presume there is also a quite capable Minister of Agriculture sitting in Rome as well as a minister in Brussels. It therefore stands to reason that all the provinces also have Ministers of Agriculture. No wonder we are in the mess we are. Still I digress. What has The New York Times done to Puglia. Well it has said some nasty things about Italian olive oil and Fabrizio seems to have taken the article as mainly aimed at Puglia though it is not mentioned .

The story was written by Nicholas Blechman. Now I know nothing about him but I mention him because I was reading a WordPress article on blog etiquette the other day and it said you should name the writer when using his/her material so, err, I have.  He in turn has built most of his story on the findings of a blogger Tom Mueller who used to be an investigative reporter looking at the olive oil industry. Nicholas mentions this at the end of his article so obviously read the same WordPress article I did.

Mueller now writes an excellent blog called Truth in Olive Oil, the purpose of which is to praise the good olive oil producers and expose the bad. Hence the New York Times article .

In it Blechman exposes  what is going on in the industry in Italy . He and Mueller claim that the majority of Italian Extra virgin olive oil in fact comes from Spain, Morocco and Tunisia. Italy is the world’s largest importer of olive oil, which is a fact I certainly didn’t know  and certainly heightened my interest in the rest of the article.

So here goes. Cheap olive oil and soybean oil are relabelled abroad and shipped in large tankers to Naples ( it would be wouldn’t it !) . The oil is then unloaded and taken to bent refineries where it is mixed with other vegetable oils. Then beta carotene is added to disguise the taste, and chlorophyll to get the correct colour. At the end of the process out pops Extra Virgin Olive Oil or that is what it says on the label. It also says Imported From Italy which keeps the stuff on the right side of the E.U, though they do advise it should also state which countries the oil comes from. But that is a suggestion and is not enforceable under  E.U. law. So guess what the refiners don’t.

The oil is then shipped to the USA where there is a massive boom in olive oil consumption. It has become one of those great American health fads the way only the Americans can do fads.

In 2010 it was found that 69% of Italian imported olive oil labelled Extra Virgin in the USA was not the real thing at all.

Well just after the article appeared up popped in New York our very own Fabrizio the erstwhile Minister of Agriculture . He was there promoting wine production in Puglia with a tasting road show called Raise a Glass to Puglia.  Oh to have been born an Italian male and be a Minister of Agriculture ! So the press attending the slurping instead of praising the wines had the effrontery to our ask our very own Fabrizio ‘what about the Times olive oil story”.

Now I would have expected him to just deny it . The story hadn’t mentioned Puglia and seemed centred on Naples and the refineries close by, several of which the article went on to say had been raided on many occasions  by the police but due to political interference no prosecutions had taken place . Not  from our own Fabrizio surely ? No couldn’t be.

So what did he say , well this

“We are the folks who guarantee quality and too often get damaged from food fraud. Americans should learn from us how to make healthy and delicious products”

and then this

“All Americans who have been appreciating the wines, olive oils and excellent products from Puglia have been given an instrumental lesson on food quality. They should understand that they are part of a country of counterfeit and unhealthy foods,”

Hmm, well that certainly told them in no uncertain terms but doesn’t really answer the charges made in the New York Times article which you start to worry maybe he hadn’t read . But he wasn’t finished he closed with

“Americans should explain why their legislators have not taken action against those olive oils produced in California that claim to be Italian. Those products passed off as Italian lead American consumers who have read the NYT article to believe that they are the result of a distorted production system (the Italian system), which is ironic since the Italians actually represent excellent and reputable producers with great expertise.”

Trouble is the article actually said the Italian System most certainly didn’t represent excellent producers in fact quite the opposite and Fabby did nothing to counter the claim. Still, the press reported, he came out fighting so maybe it was okay. Be nice to know whether  Puglia is in any way involved in this scam. If it is it has shot itself in the foot as the article finished with the fact that because so much phoney stuff was being shipped to the USA the price of olive oil was falling like a stone and the counterfeiters were losing their shirts.  Probably couldn’t happen to a nicer crowd of guys.








About hereinpuglia

Retired to Puglia after some 40 years in the travel industry working for P&O Lines, British Airways, Alamo rent-a-car,Abercrombie&Kent, owner of Quest Tours and Travel and finally with Thomas Cook North America. Married to Geraldine we now have a small house with too much land near the town of Martina Franca in Puglia. Two kids one married and living in Hong Kong and the other single and living in London. No dogs, no cats no animals.
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4 Responses to Oil on Troubled Waters

  1. nuovastoria says:

    Like so many things, there is much, much more to the Italian extra virgin olive oil story than addressed in Blechman’s infographic. Mueller, a former New York Times investigative reporter, addresses much of this in his book “Extra Virginity,” but the bulk of his research addressed fraud that took place over 15 years ago. Unfortunately, Blechman’s piece prompted a firestorm because it failed to address the issues thoughtfully and in the depth they deserve. The olive oil world is still reeling.

    To be sure, food fraud is a serious issue and one that is exploding worldwide as a direct result of the profit margin, the public’s relative indifference to quality in favor of price and quantity and the ease with which food can be manufactured/altered fraudulently. And Puglia’s agriculture minister is not wrong in saying that the American food industry is a player in this abomination, too.

    Making matters worse, olive oil is easy to alter, escaping notice even in sophisticated lab tests. So how do you know if you’re buying real, high quality extra virgin stuff that comes from Italian hand-harvested olives that are milled at low temperatures with clean equipment? First, you need to pay more. It takes one human harvesting olives for just under an hour to pick enough of them to make one liter of oil. If you’re paying that worker only $10 an hour, it’s not hard to figure out that olive oil that sells for anything less than that is fraudulent. After all, you haven’t included the cost of maintaining the olive grove (pruning, etc.), milling costs (about a euro a liter), container and labeling costs and storage/transport costs (considerable if the oil is bound for the U.S.). You should know and trust your producer; you should also look for a harvest date and a “best by” date on the label. Low quality olive oil never identifies the source of the olives or the date of the harvest for obvious reasons. High quality olive oil is packed in obscured glass bottles or tins to minimize exposure to light and heat, so oil sold in clear glass bottles isn’t produced by companies which are overly concerned about quality.

    Lastly, great olive oil comes from many different countries around the world, notably Greece, Palestine, Spain, Morocco, Tunisia, etc. However, the olive oil that is brought in huge quantities to Italy from many of these countries is typically several years old or produced from olives that have been allowed to ferment, the resulting oil then chemically stripped of its fusty, rancid properties and blended with a tiny percentage of real, extra virgin olive oil and sold as the real thing. It is then typically bottled in Italy and festooned with labels featuring a pastoral Tuscan country scene to spur sales. This is the stuff to avoid in favor of small producers who source their olives from a single estate or multi-generational families who have grown olives for centuries.

    But I don’t have a strong opinion about all of this . . . 😉

    • hereinpuglia says:

      Thank you Catherine for clarifying this issue in more depth and what to look for on a label. Pity Fabrizio didn’t say something similar in New York. Ever thought of politics ? Please let me know when are you free to give me that lesson on WordPress. Cheers Mike

  2. Jayne says:

    Well we producers wot till the land, prune the trees, collect the olives and follow them round the mills to collect the dripping gold stuff at the other end, know that we do it right and get the real stuff!!!!

    • hereinpuglia says:

      How true, Jayne, and as one of the stick wielders in the field for 5 days with the aching shoulders to show for it each night (grappa taken internally seems to help) I know how much I think good olive oil should cost. Cheers Mike

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