If you're running a business that sells or processes olive oil, or a restaurant that utilizes it often, then chances are you've bought a watered-down mixture at some point. Product authenticity has actually become a significant problem in the olive oil industry. The problem boils down to a discrepancy between what companies say they are offering, and what they are actually distributing.
The olive oil industry has been rife with fraud for some time
Labeling is often an issue in the food industry, and for businesses handling olive oil, it is no different. Many olive oil products labeled "extra virgin" are, in reality, not of that quality. Often they are mixed with other oils, such as canola, and then deceptively distributed as "extra virgin." There's a lot of money to be made in olive oil - it is a particularly popular product in the United States, and the size of the business has led to a flourish of forgeries. In fact, several years ago Business Insider characterized the olive oil industry as "unbelievably corrupt."
Way back in 2005 the Italian government confiscated around 26,000 gallons of fake olive oil worth $8 million. The gang in possession of the counterfeit product was alleged to have added chlorophyll to canola oil for coloring, as well as flavoring. The knock-off oil was being sold in northern Italy and Germany. And the industry is still struggling with the fake products today.
That Italian gang may have been sitting on a treasure trove of counterfeit olive oil, but the value of their haul was a small fraction of what the U.S. spends on the product - about $1.5 billion annually. And the majority of the olive oil sold to restaurants and businesses in the food services industry is fake. In fact, independent tests at the University of California Davis Olive Center found that of the olive oil samples studied - all labeled "extra virgin" - 60 percent did not meet the standards for such a label. Chemical purity tests at the university found that one in 15 extra virgin samples and one in six olive oil samples were actually mixed with another product such as canola oil.
Recently, the practice of mixing extra virgin products with other, less expensive oils, has led to legal issues for some distributors. A class action lawsuit filed in California last July claimed that a product labeled as "imported from Italy" and "extra virgin" wasn't, in fact, either. The plaintiff's attorneys had several bottles of the company's product tested for authenticity, and found that none of the samples matched international, national or state standards for the "extra virgin" label. In this particular case, the samples were alleged to have degraded from extra virgin quality before the best buy date due to the use of clear bottles, which let in harmful light.
Preventing fake olive oil from making it through the supply chain
Food lawsuits are increasingly common in the industry. Often, somewhere along the supply chain, products such as olive oil are adulterated with less expensive goods. The olive oil industry has been rife with the problem for years.
Ensuring product authenticity has become increasingly important in the food service industry as knock-off goods continue to slip into the supply chain and lawsuits become more prevalent. Scientists hope that technologies developed to track olive oil through the supply chain will ensure products are authentic upon reaching the food services industry.
One solution may be to apply product authentication labels with QR codes that can be scanned by the consumer so they can see exactly where it comes from, tracking it back to the olive farm, and when it was harvested, to ensure freshness. These can be a very cost-effective medium to provide reliable and secure authentication, setting apart genuine high-quality producers from scammers.
Branddy Spence is OpSec's Director of Corporate Communications. Prior to her current role, she spent several years implementing successful brand protection programs for many well-known licensing and entertainment brands.