For millennia, olive oil has been a mainstay of Mediterranean cuisine and culture. Before it was employed for cooking, it was utilised for therapeutic and religious purposes, earning it the nickname "liquid gold" in Homer's "Iliad."
Over the years, the olive branch has come to symbolise peace and wealth, and pungent extra virgin and virgin olive oils are high-value global exports. The olive oil market is predicted to grow dramatically over the next decade, reaching $22.3 billion in 2022.
However, behind the world's most famous extra virgin olive oils, produced in Italy, Spain, and Greece, are equally lucrative criminal enterprises cashing in on the gold rush by selling fake liquid gold, which uses sunflower, canola, or even lamp oil to create a product that can retail for up to $30 per litre in the United States.
Authorities in Spain and Italy, working with the EU's Europol law enforcement agency, announced in late November that they had detained 11 persons linked to one such criminal group, seizing 12 barrels holding approximately 260,000 litres of contaminated or non-virgin or extra-virgin olive oil.
They also confiscated 5,200 litres of market-ready grade oil that was ready for export. The authorities declared it "unfit for consumption," despite misleading labelling claiming the oil was 100% Italian or Spanish.
Authorities also discovered 91,000 euros (almost $100,000) in cash, four high-end automobiles, fraudulent labels, and papers claiming the oil was grown in Spain and Italy. At the same time, sample tests proved it was manufactured by combining olive oil leftovers with other types of fat.
"A mix of various factors, such as the general inflation of prices, reduced olive oil production, and increasing demand, have created the perfect breeding ground for fraudulent producers," according to a press release issued by Europol.
"Unfortunately, the faking of extra virgin olive oil is a common practice, which is why the fight against it is a law enforcement priority — especially in production countries," according to law enforcement agencies.
According to Coldiretti, Italy's major farming organisation, infusing high-grade olive oil with poorer items has become frequent as rising demand for Mediterranean oil exports is offset by decreased production rates caused by increasingly harsh weather extremes.
Fraudsters increasingly utilise chlorophyll or beta carotene to give the oil distinctive green or buttery yellow tints.
According to Coldiretti, Mediterranean oil production would be 41% lower in 2023. Because of the rainy spring, olive trees blossomed less, and the scorching summer heat withered the olives that did sprout.
As a result, producers need help to meet market demand.
In the Mediterranean oil-producing regions, the so-called "agri mafia" has moved in to fill supply gaps, building its phoney extra virgin olive oil enterprises.
"Mixing consumer-grade olive oil with lower grade alternatives allowed the criminals to offer competitive prices while entering legal supply chains," according to Europol.
"This illegal practice can not only cause a public health risk but also undermine consumer trust and thus have further economic repercussions," according to the statement.
While their tainted products are far from accurate, criminal organisations require high-quality olives for the base oil utilised in their blends.
This has increased the theft of entire olive trees or fruitful limbs. Thieves have been taking chainsaws to historic trees in Greece and Italy to steal olive-laden limbs daily.
Because olive harvesting is a delicate operation, taking entire trees or branches is more accessible than plucking the fruit, even if theft often results in severe tree damage.
Authorities in Greece, Spain, and Italy have also reported an increase in the number of olive warehouse break-ins and the destruction of harvesting equipment to postpone harvesting so thieves can steal the olives instead.
The arrests, conducted by Spanish and Italian officials in November, were made after "anomalies" were discovered. This included a complaint of a vehicle carrying lower-quality olive oil entering a production plant where oil for export was being manufactured.
According to a 2022 European Commission assessment, olive oil is one of the most falsely labelled items in Europe and one of the most frequently probed.
According to Coldiretti, demand drives the phoney olive oil trade.
Despite a poor harvest in 2023, extra virgin olive oil prices are unlikely to reduce anytime soon. According to the European Union, following a drought in Spain in 2022, additional pure olive oil prices from Spain (the world's top producer) increased by more than 80%. Even though last year's harvest was not below average, the cost of Italian oil soared by 66%.
Due to acute production shortages in both countries this year, prices for the 2024 export season will likely rise further, making the market more appealing to criminals.
Share This Post On
Leave a comment
You need to login to leave a comment. Log-in