Why Your Olive Oil Might not Be What it Seems to Be

No one wants to be fooled, no one wants to be lied to — especially when it comes to delicate issues like health and nutrition.

Food fraud is a crime. Not being accurate with ingredients or selling a food product that doesn’t contain what it says on the label is a crime. Customers are not only betrayed and deprived of their money when buying low-quality products, they might face health risks too.

What is food fraud and why is it so common?

Deliberately misleading customers when selling food products is food fraud.

Not being honest about or intentionally concealing the origin of a product is food fraud.

Mixing low-quality into high-quality products while demanding the original price is food fraud.

Not declaring all ingredients or the wrong ones on the label is food fraud.

Trading with low-quality products is profitable — buy cheap, sell pricy — that’s why high-end products such as olive oil or organic food are one of the main targets of food fraud. The immense price range between “extra virgin” and lower quality oils is attractive for the imposters. Another factor that raises prices is the origin, for example, if the product shows a trademarked name. Shortages due to crop failures (like we experienced in the Mediterranean region in the past) fuel the scam further.

Products that are most at risk for food fraud are honey and maple syrup, oils, milk, coffee, tea, herbs, and wine. To give you some numbers: in a recent investigation conducted in Germany, 23% of the analyzed olive oils were counterfeit by substitution with a cheaper vegetable oil.

Also, for imposters, it’s not likely to be caught, since authenticity controls are often difficult to conduct and not yet implemented in routine in all food safety laboratories.

How can authenticity be controlled and why don’t we just do it?

As for most other things the answer is simple — because it’s not that simple.

You could say that food safety analysis splits up in two areas: looking for substances we know and for those we don’t know.

What we know are plant protection products (pesticides) that are approved by the government — those that are used by most of the growers. The task is to test for those pesticides and check that the residues are not exceeding any limits, so they are safe for human consumption. That part is quite easy, since you know what you’re looking for. But what if you don’t?

Authenticity testing is a different approach. Let me give you an example: If you want to know if an olive oil actually comes from place A (processed from high-quality olives as it says on the label) and not from place B (olives of lower quality), you have to define features to distinguish them. That feature has to be consistent throughout all olives from place A, but also unique to separate them from place B. Some of those features may overlap — both olives are dark in color — but if you’re lucky, you’ll be able to define that one unique feature that can only be found in olives from place A.

Jackpot. You’ve identified a fingerprint.

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It will look like this (kind of).

The fingerprinting approach can detect not only the geographic origin of products but also distinguish species, varieties, and manufacturing processes. Finding that one feature is key and may take hundreds if not thousands of measurements of different olive samples, but once you’ve found that individual fingerprint for each olive, it’s possible to track them back — from the olive oil, to the retailer, to the manufacturer, to the grower — and make food fraud impossible.

Unfortunately, currently, the sample analysis with fingerprint approach is not standardized, databases are not extensive enough and the data evaluation is complicated. Yet. But we’re working on it, I promise.

What is being done to protect against food fraud?

Operation Opson is coordinated by Interpol and Europol to between police, national food regulatory authorities, and private sector partners of 77 countries to uncover food fraud. It is an annual operation and was conducted the 9th time this year.

More than 12000 tonnes of illegal and potentially harmful items were discovered during controls.

A few examples show how far food fraud can develop. In Jordan, authorities seized 6.500 liters of expired drinks (energy drinks and soda) and over 7 tonnes of rotten milk. In an unregistered warehouse in Bulgaria, they’ve found cheese waiting for processing and selling that was tested positive for E. coli. This year the main focus of their investigation was olive oil — extra virgin — which was blended with oils of lower quality.

Our anual Operation Opson shows […] that it’s crucial to protect both consumers and businessses from the harm criminals try to put on our plates.

— Catherine De Bolle Europol’s Executive Director


FoodAuthent is a research project that unites governmental institutions, universities, and private laboratories (based in Germany and funded by the Federal Ministry of Food and Agriculture (BMEL)). Their aim is to create fingerprinting databases and bring fingerprinting analysis to routine in the food safety sector.

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From FoodAuthent Project Flyer

Research and communication are key in fighting food fraud. Sharing knowledge and data between labs — building a network and gathering all measurements into big data could s — will help to generate a unique fingerprint for food products and make food fraud much more difficult.

What can you do?

The bad news is — as a consumer you have (in most cases) no possibility to detect food fraud unless you know your producer, grow food yourself or you’re an olive oil sommelier. But the good news is that in most cases the food fraud does not affect your health. Of course, there’ve been hazardous cases with horsemeat, meat from “undeclared species” (gives me goosebumps every time), contamination with Salmonella or E.coli, and melamine in baby food.

But most likely you’ll find origin fraud, organic food that’s not organic, eggs derived from stall instead of free-range hens or some sunflower oil in your premium extra virgin olive oil. I don’t want to frighten or conciliate, but inform that food fraud is real, it’s present all around us, so be aware and have a closer look at what you buy and eat.

The more local you buy, the more unprocessed food you eat, the more you cook yourself — the better.

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