Author: You may not like what’s lurking in your olive oil

Tom Mueller: many extra virgin olive oils are "a big hoax'

That bottle of extra virgin olive oil you take off the grocery store shelf may not be what you think it is.

Instead of being a greenish-gold, fruity, fresh oil made from olives, rich in antioxidants and delicious to drizzle over a beautiful caprese salad, more likely than not it is a blend of oils, some made from olives, and some not.

In fact, a recent study by UC Davis that tested a number of the best-selling olive oils in California, including Bertolli, Star, and Colavita, found that 69% of the extra virgin olive oil imported into the U.S. did not meet the standards for extra virgin.

“It’s a big hoax,” said Tom Mueller, who will be talking about the issue, and his new book, Extra Virginity: The Sublime and Scandalous World of Olive Oil, on Saturday from 2 to 6 pm at Amphora Nueva Berkeley Olive Oil Works on Domingo Avenue. “What’s written on the bottle does not guarantee what is inside.”

Mueller, who lives in a medieval stone farmhouse surrounded by olive groves in Liguria, Italy, stumbled into the murky world of blackmarket olive oil in 2007, when he agreed to write an article about oil for the New Yorker. What he found surprised him.

“I figure I am living in Italy,” said Mueller, 48. “I’ve been eating some good olive oil. Italy is the world center of olive oil. Surely it would be an easy, folksy story. I had no idea what I was getting into – the collusion, the crime, talking to investigative magistrates.”

The result of his research was Slippery Business, an article that shook up American palates by showing how many large companies pass off inferior oil as extra virgin olive oil. Since neither the FDA nor the Italian equivalent really regulate the market, unscrupulous producers have developed numerous ways to adulterate extra virgin olive oil, according to Mueller. They cut olive oil with hazelnut or sunflower oil. They take musty oil made from rotting olives, deodorize it to remove the bad smell, and then add a bit of extra virgin oil to make it smell authentic. Then they slap fancy labels on glass bottles and sell it as extra virgin olive oil.

Some of the worst oil goes into industrial food, said Mueller.

“There’s a river of rotten oil going into food service — restaurants hotels, schools, hospitals,” he said. “The big companies are selling things that are not even olive oil.”

Most of the olive oil stocked in a grocery store is not as bad as the industrial oils, said Mueller. But the UC Davis test showed that even though the supermarket oils were branded extra virgin, much of the time they were only of virgin quality. The only imported oil that passed the test was Kirkland’s Extra Virgin Olive Oil – which is from Costco.

A number of California olive oils also tested well, including McEvoy Ranch, Corto Oil, California Olive Ranch, or COR.

Mueller, who hopes his book will kickstart a consumer campaign to fight for enforceable standards for extra virgin olive oil, said one reason to care is that true good olive oil, besides tasting good, has numerous health benefits. Consumers often think they are getting those health benefits when they buy a bottle labeled extra virgin, but often they are not.

“It would be hard to find a single more healthful substance than olive oil,” said Mueller. “Science is just starting to understand its 200+ compounds that are antioxidant and anti-inflammatory.”

Amphora Nueva Berkeley Olive Oil Works on Domingo Avenue. Photo: Frances Dinkelspiel

Mueller is holding a book signing at Amphora in Berkeley because it is a store dedicated to carrying only the best olive oils. In Extra Virginity, he discusses the store’s owners, Mike and Veronica Bradley, who run Veronica Foods, founded by Veronica’s grandfather in 1924. The Bradleys have scoured the world to find well-made and flavorful olive oil from places as diverse as Italy, Morocco, Tunisia, Turkey, Portugal and Syria, among others. The company imports more than one million gallons of premium olive oil from 70 producers in 20 countries, according to Mueller. The Bradleys ship most of that to specialty stores around the country. Their only retail outlet is Amphora in Berkeley.

“They have been fighting against really sleazy merchandise for a long time in an industry that makes used-car dealers look transparent.”

Mueller’s readings at 3 pm and 5 pm will be accompanied by tastings of some of Amphora’s best olive oils.

Is it hard to do business in Berkeley? [01.20.11]
Olive oil in lieu of bicycles on Domingo Avenue [06.07.10]

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  • berkopionator

    Kirkland ORGANIC Extra Virgin Olive Oil (to be precise) was the only one that passed muster:

  • Bertoli olive oil obviously is bad. I usually use California Olive Ranch but a store did not have any and I got the Italian brand. Tasted like bad oil even though it was well within its label date.

  • I remember that New Yorker article. Quite an expose. Worth hunting up. 

  • TN

    Mislabeling and cheating is as old as the trade in olive oil. Which is to say at least as old as the ancient Greeks and probably older. Mort Rosenblum explored the history of olives in the Mediterranean region in his 1996 book “Olive: Life and lore of the noble fruit.” This is one of my favorite food books.

    That said, there’s a more balanced presentation of the issues around the charges of mis-representation of imported oils in a past issue of the Edible East Bay.

    A few years ago, a friend visiting us from Rome hand carried a bottle of olive oil to us from Italy. There is no olive oil available in America, domestic or imported, that is as good as the best available in Italy.

  • Birddog

    One thing that I do when looking at purchasing a particular olive oil is to see if it lists more than one country of origin. I will only buy olive oil if the label states that it is from one country. And BTW Spanish olive oil seems to be more consistently good than anyother.

  • Stevsars

     Not new to all the folks I’ve been preaching to. I use the description, “Fresh, Green”, to describe my oil…simple, accurate. “Extra Virgin”…how could a phrase like that ever have meaning? Probably one of the reasons the Romans came up with “Buyer Beware”.

  • OliveChirper

    I’m pleased to say that there *is* olive oil available in America, domestic *and* imported, that is as good as the best available in Italy. Head in to an olive oil tasting bar in your area carrying new oil and taste for yourself!

  • Anonymous

    I’m in agriculture in the Central Valley.  This news has been sort of commonplace knowledge amongst people in the domestic olive business for a long time.  California has an ideal climate for growing olives for oil.  It’s every bit the equivalent of anything in Europe and so are the oils produced.  In addition, California oils are subject to strict quality standards. If it says “Extra Virgin” on the label, that’s exactly what you’re going to get.  In this case, Americans truly do produce a superior product.  Seek out California olive oil.  Buy American.  Keep the money working here. 

  • Local California produced oil rival the best oils around the world.Start with good sound fruit, mill the fruit as soon as possible in sanitary conditions, store your oil properly and use it before –heat, air , light or TIME break your oil down,lose all its antioxidants and convert it to old rancid oil, Buy local buy fresh buy Olive Oil that is certified by the COOC and you will be assured to taste wonderful balanced and bold or mild oils spanning the whole flavor spectrum. :-)

  • Cammy

    Wonder what they’d rate the Trader Joe’s extra virgin olive oil as?

  • Sam Parker

    I care most how it affects what’s on the plate. Great olive oil should be obviously different from the fake stuffn a taste test, no?

  • Joan

    Stonehouse olive oil is the best. It is now available at Flowerland Nursery in Albany on Solano.

  • Anonymous

    If — that small two letter word with the big meaning — there is just such a structure here in California that tests and monitors all phases of olive production here, what is it’s Governmental name and web site link and describe it’s testing protocols and procedures.  I understand that soybean oil has been used in the past / present to accomplish this kind of alteration in Italy and worry about it’s use here in California oils.  

    Like ‘Cammy’ below I too wonder what is in or missing from my Extra Virgin olive oil from Trader Joe’s here in Berkeley.  In full honesty I find it near impossible to believe that all of these imports are *not* tested by the USDA.  It’s too surreal and incomprehensible.  TJ’s and Whole Foods might very well partner with other more progressive markets and have *all* of their oils privately tested regularly for just this deception, contamination and alteration.  Once the big money becomes involved, things change very quickly in America, sometimes even for the better.        

  • Anonymous

    It’s not a governmental agency; it’s an industry certification group.

  • Acount1000

    Costco does quality control on all its products. 

    they had better be ready for a lot of olive oil sales.  we’ve been buying their oil and other products for years.

    yea for Costco.

  • Georgio

    The olive oil from Palestine is one of the best in the world. They do not cheat.

  • Anonymous

    I just checked my Trader Joe’s Extra Virgin olive oil tonight as I have been using it since the store here opened.  I had to search for the information.  It’s distributed bad sold by Trader Joe’s in Monrovai California, and then under this statement, Packed in Italy ( *Warning! ) and then under this amazing statement a possible telling series of numbers i.e. (CE) ITA/087 – FI/09.  Perhaps someone in the know could decode this for us all as I am very wary and suspicious now.  TJ’s needs to have these very ‘carefully’ tested as it arrives in port there.  I suspect that we will all  might be surprised.  In the midst of this current economic meltdown, most of us are shopping for good things to purchase at moderate costs.  This stuff may all be 35% soybean oil.  Let’s get some reality based science in on this affordable quandary.     

  • Joe

     Then how come their prime beef never looks like prime? 

    I like Costco but that is a sticking point for me.  Prime needs to have some marbling.

  • Davi Lowman

    all the above is why i buy only EVOO from the family-owned, operated olive oil mill in chianti, podere pornanino.

  • Anonymous

    I wanted readers to know that I have personally taken on the project of researching the Extra Virgin olive oil that is being sold at Trader Joe’s here locally and as such have both emailed and spoken with a customer relations specialist at their home office on the subject and they are supposed to get back to me with a full and complete reply.  I told them not to “trust” anyone in Italy with this issue as per all of the corruption that was discovered by the Italian authorities in the high end wine industry that shook them at their core or so one would hope.  

    As soon as I receive a response from the management at Trader Joe’s I will post it here as I fought to get that store in there after suffering the continued humiliation of having to even go to the former Andronico’s on Shattuck here as it went down and then over the hill.  My inside sources there told me stories that are and were chilling that I have held back on however now that it’s closing ( gratefully ) and might be reborn ( there is always chance or a flicker of hope with such things ) I do remember the story one employee who was addicted the meth who went on a rampage there and attacked the manager with a hammer.  Now get this as it’s over the top.  After rehab and some dancing with the so called ‘union’ he was ‘back on the damn job’!  Then it got worse and the good people I talked to all had plans to jump ship and were already searching out new horizons locally and elsewhere.  No vision, no engaged managment and a full disconnect from the neighborhood and its demographics, needs, wants and desires.

    Let’s see what Trader Joe’s has to say about it’s own product/s in light of this story.  This has been put on a top priority basis and needs to be the center of my research and I will not take half answers for the truth in this matter.  To be continued…

  • Wayland

    Georgia has had its first harvest of olives for cold-pressed olive oil.  We’re now an “oil state” :D  You can find articles through

  • Unfortunately Bertolli, Carapelli and Sasso are, by the way, Spanish. They belongs to SOS Cuetara a spanish multinational and does not use italian olive oil normally. 

  • Jkeady

    Thanks Kate, wow, who knew…we will certainly be more careful about our EVOO purchases in the future.

  • victoria maria

    the best extra vergin olive oil we have it here in greece,in kalamata!we are a village named avramiou that creates the best organic olive oil ever!for more informations contact

  • foodie1

    I tend NOT to take Mueller too seriously, he’s in bed with the Bradleys.

  • By the way, good quality virgin cold pressed olive oil contains grade essential oils, which are healing.

  • Dave

    He doesn’t even seem to know the word center of olive oil is not Italy, but actually Spain. Carapelli, Sasso and Bertolli are Spanish. It’s just a matter of marketing. In some markets Italian brands sell much better. If you really know about quality olive oil, you should know this.

  • Gerry Wood

    I cant believe what I have just read I purchase the butter the virgin oil mainly because I look after my wife 24/7 and think that I am doing the right thing obviously not,is there nothing to be trusted in which we purchase? thanks.

  • Jackie

    I’ve been reading a lot about this problem for months. I use a lot of olive oil in my kitchen. The big question is: what is the best, safest, most authentic organic, first cold pressed, extra virgin olive oil I can purchase?

  • Moda girl

    Greek olive oil is the best olive oil in the world, and EU investigation found that other countries use Greek olive oil mixed in with theirs, and then pass it off as theirs! Buy GREEK–there is a reason that Greeks are healthy, and there is a reason that every one that goes to Greece and eats there, says that they feel amazing and even lose weight!! BTW-Greek ‘restaurants’ in the United States use inferior products in their food for more profit. You will not reap health benefits of Greek food eating in so called ‘Greek restaurants’ unless they are the super expensive ones in cities like NY.

  • moda girl

    The best olive oil is Greek…other countries use it and mix it in with theirs and then pass it off as their own. Trader Jo’s has a bottle under their name and produced in Kalamata Greece–for quite a decent price.