Extra Virginity: The Sublime and Scandalous World of Olive Oil
Mueller's argument is essentially that 1) the olive oil we eat now is crap and 2) this is because major players in the food business are systematically adulterating "extra virgin" olive oil in ways undetected and unpunished by the authorities.
I expected to squeeze a lot more out of "Extra Virginity". I wanted a book that laid bare the dynamics of international, Mafia-connected crime syndicates and instead I got a promotional brochure for a couple ultra-fancy olive oil brands. Mueller's argument is essentially that 1) the olive oil we eat now is crap and 2) this is because major players in the food business are systematically adulterating "extra virgin" olive oil in ways undetected and unpunished by the authorities. He tested my patience with his relentless hawking of the virtues of olive oil and only halfway redeemed himself with some sketches of the history of olive oil production, consumption, distribution, and fraud. Yet, Mueller's exposé rarely names names and is heavily reliant on insider hearsay. Quite unsatisfying, especially because of the tantalizing glimpses of a fantastic criminal enterprise:
In olive oil fraud, an EU investigator told me, “profits were comparable to cocaine trafficking, with none of the risks.”
This book was part of my 2018 reading theme: "Crime and Punishment"
My highlights below.
Prologue - ESSENCES
These were members of the tasting panel of the Corporazione Mastri Oleari, in Milan, one of the most respected private olive oil associations;
Then, after a swirling moment of bewilderment and dawning disgust, I spat it into the sink. Something was wrong with this oil: after the tart, intensely fresh-tasting essences I’d been trying until now, it felt flabby and coarse in my mouth, and tasted like spoiled fruit. Zaramella laughed his gruff laugh. “I brought the supermarket oil last,” he said, “because it would have ruined your palate for the good ones, as surely as if you’d gargled cat piss.”
He picked up the bottle of supermarket oil I’d been tasting. “You know, according to the law, if an oil contains just one of these defects — one hint of fusty, a trace of brine — it’s not extra virgin grade. Basta, end of story. In fact, with the flaws this oil has, it’s classed as lampante: ‘lamp oil.’ Which can only be legally sold as fuel: it’s only fit for burning, not eating. Trouble is, the law is never enforced.”
Zaramella identified the headquarters of oil fraud throughout the Mediterranean, naming refineries and factories in Lugano, Switzerland; Málaga, Spain; Sfax in Tunisia; and elsewhere throughout the Mediterranean, where bogus extra virgins were fabricated.
“Generosity is the purest form of egotism,” he said with a shrug.
Here and there were hints of oil’s darker side. Medieval sorcerers and Renaissance witches used olive oil in their spells and unguents, and unguentarii were said to spread the plague with tainted oil.
Both the practical and the mythical popularity of oil derive, at least partly, from the almost miraculous agronomic characteristics of the olive tree, which thrives even in desert conditions and, when destroyed by fire or frost, sends up green shoots from the root ball through which the tree is reborn.
OLIVES AND LIVES
Puglia’s sixty million olive trees are owned by 250,000 pugliesi — an average of 240 trees per person — in groves that have grown gradually smaller and more jagged as they’ve been passed down through the generations.
Olive oil is the only commercially significant vegetable oil to be extracted from a fruit rather than from seeds, like sunflower, canola, and soy oil. Since the fruit contains considerable water, extraction can be done by mechanical methods alone, with a centrifuge or a press, whereas extracting seed oils generally requires the use of industrial solvents, typically hexane. To remove this solvent from seed oils, as well as to eliminate the unpleasant tastes and odors they normally have, they must be processed in a refinery, where they undergo high-temperature desolventization, neutralization, deodorization, bleaching, and degumming. The end result is a tasteless, odorless, colorless liquid fat. Olive oil, instead, can simply be pressed or spun out of the olive pulp, yielding a fresh-squeezed fruit juice with all of its natural tastes, aromas, and health-enhancing ingredients intact.
Saverio De Carlo’s use of the centrifuge helped to begin a technology boom in olive oil production, during which Italian engineering firms like Pieralisi and Alfa Laval invented new systems for olive crushing and malaxing and oil extraction, making quality olive oil progressively easier to produce.
Despite this flourishing market, however, the De Carlos and nearly all other producers of quality olive oil, large and small, are struggling. Over the last decade, the wholesale price of Italian extra virgin oil — or what is classified as such — has plunged; on the Bari commodities market it currently runs at €2 per kilo, a historic low.
Grazia and Saverio, like Flavio Zaramella, blame this contradictory situation on the dubious virginity of most olive oil, in Italy and abroad. To meet the legal requirements for taste and chemical properties of the extra virgin grade, an oil must be made from healthy, expertly picked olives, milled within twenty-four hours of the harvest to preserve their flavors and avoid spoilage. So it’s far more difficult, expensive, and labor-intensive to produce than lampante oil from windfall olives. Yet if law enforcement is lax, extra virgin oil can easily be cut with cheaper oils, made with inferior olives or other substances entirely, creating unfair competition for honest producers.
since labor costs account for most of the overall expense of the harvest, older orchards are more time-consuming and costly to work.
One skilled olive-picker, who earns €100 a day, can harvest about six big trees, he said. Each tree produces between forty and fifty kilos of olives per harvest, which in turn yields about 15 percent by weight in oil — 6 to 7.5 kilos per tree, or 6.6 to 8.2 liters of oil (one liter of oil weighs 0.91 kilos).
Olive oil, they saw, was the common denominator for the entire complex: it was the solvent and base for perfume-making, the hot-burning fuel for the smelting furnaces, the fabric softener and lubricant for the looms in the textile mill.
The end product of photosynthesis, olive oil is a highly efficient energy storage medium for arid climates.
But inside every domestic tree lurks a wild olive, which reasserts itself if the tree is abandoned: suckers sprout in a dense underbrush, the central trunk withers, and the tree reverts to the bush-like primordial olive.
After all, Aphrodite, goddess of love and desire, was thought to be the inventor of perfumes; myths said she rose from the sea near Cyprus, an island known for millennia as the center of perfume production.
Local producers are periodically held up by armed oil bandits, who drive tanker trucks with high-pressure pumps to siphon oil out of storage silos.
In March 1986, she said, hospitals in northwest Italy began to admit dozens of people suffering from acute nausea, lack of coordination, fainting spells, and blurred vision. Twenty-six died, and twenty more went blind. Investigators eventually discovered that each victim had recently drunk a local white wine; several producers, they found, had been raising the alcohol levels of their wines by cutting them with methanol, a highly toxic substance also called wood alcohol. The scandal, and the resulting government crackdown, devastated the Italian wine industry. Consumption plummeted, and hundreds of producers, most of them honest, went bankrupt. Ultimately, however, the crisis radically improved Italian wine-making, and forced a generalized shift from quantity to quality.
Oil was the economic lifeblood of many Greek city-states. “People were prepared to spend the same amount of money on olive oil back then as they do on petroleum today,” Nigel Kennell, a specialist in ancient history at the American School of Classical Studies at Athens, says.
Plato himself financed a journey to Egypt by selling a batch of oil, probably made from his own trees. Oil was likewise a vital economic resource in Laconia, land of the Spartans, whose fearsome war machine was bankrolled largely by oil revenues.
“Testaccio” derives from the Latin word testa, meaning potsherd, and the hill crunches when you climb it because it is composed of 25 million amphorae, dumped here by the Romans between the first and third centuries AD: Monte Testaccio is the classical world’s biggest midden. Each amphora held about seventy liters of olive oil, imported from southern Spain or North Africa—in all, Monte Testaccio represents something like 1.75 billion liters of olive oil, which was distributed free to Roman citizens as part of a food subsidy known as the annona.
“Petroleum” is from petra and oleum, Latin for “olive oil from a stone.”
Emperors Marcus Aurelius and Hadrian were scions of olive oil clans in Baetica (today Andalucía), and Septimius Severus was born in Leptis Magna, capital of the famous oil-producing region of Tripolitana (modern-day Libya), where his family had grown rich making oil and the amphorae to ship it.
The enormous popularity of the “Made in Italy” label worldwide makes it an appetizing target for food fraudsters, who earn an estimated €60 billion a year selling counterfeit or adulterated faux-Italian foods.
In the so-called Italburro scandal, for example, several dairies near Naples controlled by the Camorra blended up fake butter from vegetable oils, lard, petrochemicals, and animal carcasses (some possibly infected with BSE, or mad cow disease), and sold 22,000 tons of their product throughout the EU.
Four “Italian” products in ten are actually foreign imports relabeled as Italian, often with false certificates of authenticity: over a third of pasta manufactured in Italy is made from imported wheat, half of mozzarella is produced with German milk and curds, and two-thirds of prosciutto comes from foreign hogs.
In Italy, a range of enforcement agencies works to protect the food industry, including military police forces like the Carabinieri and the Guardia di Finanza, the agriculture ministry’s Fraud Repression Unit, customs and public health offices, even the forestry service.
In the US, where retail sales of foods and beverages were worth $560 billion in 2010, several major academic institutes including Michigan State University have recently established food fraud centers
The investigators also discovered where Ribatti’s adulterated oil had gone: to some of the largest producers of Italian olive oil, among them Nestlé, Unilever, Bertolli, and Oleifici Fasanesi, who sold it to consumers as olive oil and collected the equivalent of about $12 million in European subsidies intended to support the olive oil industry. (These companies claimed that they had been swindled by Ribatti, and prosecutors were unable to prove complicity on their part.)
In 2007, an EU investigation determined that 95 percent of detected misappropriations of European agricultural subsidies, a large portion of which had occurred in the olive oil sector, had taken place in Italy. Brussels has charged Italy with negligence in recovering these funds, and is suing the Italian government for €311 million in unrecovered subsidies.
OLIVES SACRED AND PROFANE
Pope Paul VI ruled in 1973 that vegetable oil could be used instead of olive oil in the sacramental anointing of the sick.
After the Six-Day War of 1967, Israel occupied most of the West Bank territory, which contained an estimated 10 million olive trees owned by Palestinian farmers. The Palestinians continued to tend their trees more or less undisturbed until in 2000, the year of the Second Intifada, when Israeli soldiers and Jewish settlers, citing security concerns, began to burn, cut down, and uproot olive trees in many parts of the region, particularly near roads and Jewish settlements, and along the borders with Jordan and Syria. Since then, hundreds of thousands of olive trees owned by Palestinians — some sources put the number as high as half a million — have been destroyed, in what the liberal Israeli press calls the Olive Wars.
THE LOVELY BURN
Further tests revealed that although oleocanthal had a completely different molecular structure from ibuprofen, it inhibited COX-1 and COX-2 enzymes in a strikingly similar way.
If an oil doesn’t sting at the back of the throat, it contains little or no oleocanthal. If it isn’t bitter, it’s low in tocopherol and squalene. If it isn’t velvety in texture, then it’s missing hydroxytyrosol.
“Trouble is, olive oil has already had its scandal.” He mentioned the so-called “toxic oil syndrome,” an incident in Spain in 1981 during which over 20,000 people were poisoned by fake olive oil made from rapeseed oil denatured with aniline, a highly toxic organic compound used to manufacture plastics. An estimated eight hundred people died, and thousands more were left with permanent neurological and autoimmune damage. Conte glanced at me to see if I understood. Fake olive oil had caused thirty times more deaths than methanol, yet the oil business remained as slippery as ever.
Pomace oil is commonly used to adulterate olive oil.
“So long as smelly, rancid oils and first-rate oils with the perfume of fresh olives bear the same name,” März wrote, “quality producers in Italy and throughout the Mediterranean have no possibility of covering their costs.
In the early 1800s, first in England and soon after on the Continent, the factories of the Industrial Revolution developed vast new appetites for lipids. Steam-powered machines with precision, high-speed parts required more and better lubricants; textile mills consumed ever-growing quantities of fabric softeners; and a booming detergents industry called for a rapidly increasing supply of fatty acids. Traditional sources of animal fats and vegetable oils soon proved insufficient. English traders began importing a series of exotic foreign oils from their tropical colonies, most notably palm oil from Guinea and coconut oil from India. The French likewise imported peanut oil from their African colonies and linseed oil from the Levant to supply the thriving soap industry in Marseille. At first these oils were inedible, but over the next several decades food chemists invented vegetable oil refining and hydrogenation, which yielded cheap, thick, spreadable fats with long shelf lives: industrial cuisine for a new industrial society.
By 1895, European margarine production had already reached 300,000 tons, and by 1923, hydrogenated oils and solid fractions of liquid oils made up almost 90 percent of the fats consumed by Europeans.
Jurgens subsequently merged with several other oil and fat concerns, including the prominent British soap manufacturer Lever Brothers, to form Unilever, a far-flung multinational which extracted endless streams of oils from its extensive tropical plantations, piped them through huge refineries, and funneled them into people’s mouths through worldwide trading channels.
Writing in 1726, Jonathan Swift had already consumed his fair share of adulterated bread and beer, and clearly thought little of free market economics. In Gulliver’s Travels, his Lilliputians look upon Fraud as a greater Crime than Theft, and therefore seldom fail to punish it with Death: For they allege, that Care and Vigilance, with a very common Understanding, may preserve a Man’s Good from Thieves; but Honesty hath no Fence against superior Cunning: And since it is necessary that there should be a perpetual Intercourse of buying and selling, and dealing upon Credit; where Fraud is permitted or connived at, or hath no Law to punish it, the honest Dealer is always undone, and the Knave gets the Advantage.
slender but significant difference exists between caveat emptor, “let the buyer beware,” and floreat mercator, “let the seller get rich.”
Bertolli company, bought out by Unilever in 1994,
In the US, until 2001, Bertolli bottles were marked “Imported from Italy” and “Made in Italy,” and the company used slogans such as “Born in the Tuscany Mountains” and “Like the Da Vinci [painting of the Madonna and Saint Anne], Bertolli olive oil is an authentic Italian Masterpiece.” In 1998, however, Marvin L. Frank of the New York law firm Murray, Frank & Sailer brought a class-action suit against the company, charging that Bertolli oil was made from Spanish oil shipped to Italy for bottling, and that the company had used deceptive advertising because consumers were willing to pay more for Italian oil. (Frank says he settled the case in 2001, when Bertolli agreed to tone down its claims in its advertisements and labels.)
At Inveruno, the various oils Bertolli buys were stored in towering silos, which with their observation catwalks and gantries of pipes resembled ballistic missiles, and held €10 million in oil — liquid assets that had drawn unwanted attention in the past. Several years earlier, De Ceglie told me, the plant was robbed by sophisticated oil thieves, who jammed the surveillance cameras to prevent detection and then siphoned off several million euros in oil into tanker trucks.
The great art of Italian oil-making consists in producing a consistent product from a huge range of different oils that change constantly throughout the year.”
THE MODERN HISTORY of olive oil began shortly after World War II, when Ancel Keys, the Minnesota epidemiologist, visited hospitals in Naples, Madrid, and on the island of Crete. Keys found an incidence of coronary heart disease that was drastically lower than in America, though people in these places had recently suffered the extended dietary privations of wartime, while Americans had had access to a varied and plentiful food supply. Keys, who had developed the K ration for the US Army (“K” stands for “Keys”) and had recently concluded pioneering research on the physiology of human starvation, suspected that the root cause was the differing fat consumption of the two populations. Not so much the quantity of fat — paradoxically, he found that the Greeks and Italians actually had a moderate to high fat intake — but the type of fat they ate.
Yet in the three decades since America condemned fats, the scientific consensus behind this condemnation has collapsed. After hundreds of millions of dollars spent in clinical studies, and after countless billions more spent in government nutritional education programs and food marketing, there is no proof that eating fat causes pathologies like heart disease, cancer, and obesity.
Finally, on November 13, 1960, the European Parliament passed a groundbreaking law on olive oil quality, which created several new oil grades. The highest of these had an odd-sounding name, with overtones of science and religious mystery: extra virgin.
Domenico Seccia, the investigative magistrate in Bari who prosecuted Domenico Ribatti and Leonardo Marseglia, wrote a book, Olive Oil Fraud in the European Union, which described the illegal consortia of oil producers, oil traders, banks, and food companies that had formed to reap the dual rewards of oil adulteration and European subsidies, and detailed investigative techniques for detecting and disbanding these networks. In olive oil fraud, an EU investigator told me, “profits were comparable to cocaine trafficking, with none of the risks.”
IF KRITSA, CRETE, is the heartland of olive oil consumption, then Jaén, deep in the Spanish south, is the mecca of oil-making. This province of the Andalucía region produces about 500,000 tons of olive oil per year — as much oil as all of Italy.
NEW WORLDS OF OIL
Olive oil dazzled the indigenous populations with its myriad beneficial properties (the Aztecs, devotees of the sun, admired the brilliance of Spanish olive oil lanterns), and became, together with Toledo steel and Arabian stallions, an emblem of technical and cultural superiority.
In 1769, Fray Junípero Serra and a group of fellow Franciscans introduced olives to North America when they founded a mission with an olive grove on San Diego Bay. Over the next half-century the Franciscans founded twenty-one more missions along the California coast, each with its own grove of olive trees of a cultivar that subsequently became known as “mission,” still among the most widely-grown in California.
Thomas Jefferson first saw olive trees on a trip by muleback across the Alps in 1788, and was entranced, marvelling at how they “gave being to whole villages” and calling them “the richest gift of heaven,” as well as “the most interesting plant in existence.” Jefferson promptly began an olive plantation in South Carolina. He imported several gallons of “virgin oil of Aix” each year for the rest of his life, and saw to it that an olive branch, heavy with fruit, was placed in the talons of the eagle on the Great Seal of the United States.
Giuseppe Profaci was born in Villabate, Sicily in 1897, emigrated to America in 1921, and eventually founded Mamma Mia Importing Company in Brooklyn, New York. By the 1950s, the company was the leading olive oil importer in America and Joseph Profaci, as he now called himself, was known as the “Olive Oil King.” But Profaci actually seems to have made most of his fortune in less savory ways: drug trafficking, loan-sharking, extortion, prostitution, and where necessary, murder. Joseph Profaci was a leader of La Cosa Nostra, and was described by Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy as “one of the most powerful underworld figures in the United States.” (Mario Puzo, author of The Godfather, used Profaci as a model for his protagonist gangster Vito Corleone, and gave Corleone his own olive oil business, Genco Pura.)
Not all of the cottonseed oil exports from New Orleans went into margarine, however. Over half of the 1879 shipment was destined for Italy, where it was widely used to adulterate olive oil.
Yet for industrial and political reasons, the two businesses faced very different futures. The powerful farm lobby, recognizing that margarine represented a serious threat to the dairy farmer’s livelihood, took up butter’s cause.
In Wisconsin it was still illegal to sell yellow margarine until 1968, and in Quebec, the substance was only legalized in 2008, after Unilever brought suit against the provincial government.
Continued testing by the Department of Agriculture and the Department of Health, and later by the FDA, revealed extensive adulteration in the 1930s, 1940s, 1950s, 1960s, 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s, not only by oil importers but also by certain California producers themselves. In the late 1990s, having failed to halt oil adulteration, the FDA stopped testing for it.
Olive oil franchises like Oil & Vinegar and We Olive have opened in eighteen states, and excellent online resources have emerged, like the Olive Oil Times (www.oliveoiltimes.com) and the Olive Oil Source (www.oliveoilsource.com).
Perhaps most significantly, the three-year-old Olive Center at the University of California, Davis, is becoming a vital forum for chemical, sensorial, agronomic, and nutritional knowledge about olives and oil.
Finally, in 2004, Cortopassi tackled olives. He was flying over California near the town of Gridley, the location of California Olive Ranch, the largest olive producer in the state which used the recently invented super-high-density (SHD) system. In traditional olive groves, where the fruit is picked by hand or with simple rakes or shaking devices, the trees are planted at about 100 to the acre; SHD groves, by contrast, pack in 700 trees or more per acre, set in straight hedgerows like grapes or corn. SHD olives are collected by twenty-foot-tall mechanical harvesters that ride over the rows, engulfing tree after tree, gobbling up the fruit and spitting it through a chute into a trailer paralleling it one hedgerow over.
IF DINO CORTOPASSI is the epitome of all-American efficiency in the oil business, the prize for the most global vision of oil goes to Mike Bradley, an independent oil producer and trader based in Oakland.
But in addition to calculation, Bradley’s affinity for oil has poetic and historic depth. He tells with obvious glee the story of Thales of Miletus, the legendary philosopher and mathematician of ancient Greece, who made a fortune in olive oil by correctly predicting a big harvest and renting a number of mills to process it.
No lawyer would take the case, because the main fraudsters reputedly held their earnings in offshore bank accounts, which would be difficult to access even if they were successfully sued. Most discouraging of all, Bradley found that many clients of dishonest oil dealers, when informed that they were buying adulterated oil, said they didn’t care. “Yeah, we know, but it’s cheap, and that’s what our customers want,” the oil buyer for a nationwide supermarket chain told him. “I’m not here to change the world.”
Until that moment, Bradley had overlooked what might be called the antipodean advantage: being six months out of phase with the northern hemisphere, olives properly harvested and crushed Down Under during May and June, the antipodean fall, make oils that are at their best just when northern oils are beginning to lose their legs. Soon he was off to Australia, New Zealand, Chile, Argentina, and South Africa, to complete his oil education. “Once I got the two-hemispheres thing going, I fully understood that freshness is the key to great oil. From the moment the olives are crushed, the aging starts, and the oil begins to lose its magic.
In January 2011, Bradley and his family opened Amphora Nueva, their own oil store, in Berkeley
Press oils have won more national and international awards than any other oil in America.
PROBABLY THE ONLY small producer in California to defy Ed Stolman’s dictum and make a regular, honest profit from olive oil is Mike Madison, and he’s done it with no help from Oprah. Educated at Phillips Andover and at Harvard, where he earned a PhD in botany, he took a job as a plant collector for the Harvard Botanical Museum, roaming the rainforests of South America, sometimes for a year at a time.
It’s nearly impossible in some localities, such as southern California, where large-scale counterfeiters pump out blends of low-grade olive oil and soybean oil dyed bright green, and sell it to their fences, the big-name ‘legitimate’ wholesalers.” John J. Profaci, chairman of Colavita USA, says such buyers are motivated merely by low prices, not by quality, and are “as responsible as the adulterators” for the prevalence of fake olive oil on the American market. “Because if I’m offering my extra virgin olive oil at $5 a bottle and somebody comes in at $3, the buyer’s got to say, ‘You know what? Something’s wrong here. There can’t be such a big difference in price if the quality’s the same.’ But they close their eyes to it.”
The FDA considers olive oil adulteration a low priority. “We’re inclined to spend our money on things where there’s a clear public health benefit,” Martin Stutsman, an FDA specialist in adulterated food, told me.