Olive Regulation and adulteration
The International Olive Oil Council (IOOC) is an intergovernmental organization based in Madrid, Spain, with 23 member states. It promotes olive oil around the world by tracking production, defining quality standards, and monitoring authenticity. More than 85% of the world's olives are grown in IOOC member nations. The United States is not a member of the IOOC, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture does not legally recognize its classifications (such as extra-virgin olive oil). The USDA uses a different system, which it defined in 1948 before the IOOC existed. The California Olive Oil Council, a private trade group, is petitioning the USDA to adopt IOOC rules.
The IOOC officially governs 95% of international production and holds great influence over the rest. IOOC terminology is precise, but it can lead to confusion between the words that describe production and the words used on retail labels. Olive oil is classified by how it was produced, by its chemistry, and by its flavor. All production begins by transforming the olive fruit into olive paste. This paste is then malaxed (slowly churned or mixed) to allow the microscopic oil droplets to concentrate. The oil is extracted by means of pressure (traditional method) or centrifugation (modern method). After extraction the remnant solid substance, called pomace, still contains a small quantity of oil.
The EU regulates the use of different protected designation of origin labels for olive oils.
U.S. Customs regulations on "country of origin" state thatif a non-origin nation is shown on the label, then the real origin must be shown on the same side of the label and in comparable size letters so as not to mislead the consumer. Yet most major U.S. brands continue to put “imported from Italy” on the front label in large letters and other origins on the back in very small print. "In fact, olive oil labeled "Italian" often comes from Turkey, Tunisia, Morocco, Spain, and Greece." These products are a mixture of olive oil from more than one nation and it is not clear what percentage of the olive oil is really of Italian origin. This practice makes it difficult for high quality, lower cost producers outside of Italy to enter the U.S. market, and for genuine Italian producers to compete.
An article by Tom Mueller in the August 13, 2007 issue of The New Yorker alleges that regulation, particularly in Italy, is extremely lax and corrupt. Mueller states that major Italian shippers routinely adulterate olive oil and that only about 40% of olive oil sold as "extra virgin" actually meets the specification. In some cases, colza oil (Swedish turnip) with added color and flavor has been labeled and sold as olive oil. This extensive fraud prompted the Italian government to mandate a new labeling law in 2007 for companies selling olive oil, under which every bottle of Italian olive oil would have to declare the farm and press on which it was produced, as well as display a precise breakdown of the oils used, for blended oils. In February 2008, however, EU officials took issue with the new law, stating that under EU rules such labeling should be voluntary rather than compulsory. Under EU rules, olive oil may be sold as Italian even if it only contains a small amount of Italian oil.
In March 2008, 400 Italian police officers conducted "Operation Golden Oil," arresting 23 people and confiscating 85 farms after an investigation revealed a large-scale scheme to relabel oils from other Mediterranean nations as Italian. In April 2008, another operation impounded seven olive oil plants and arrested 40 people in nine provinces of northern and southern Italy for adding chlorophyll to sunflower and soybean oil, and selling it as extra virgin olive oil, both in Italy and abroad; 25,000 liters of the fake oil were seized and prevented from being exported.
Adulterated oil is usually no more serious than passing off inferior, but safe, product as superior olive oil, but there are no guarantees. Almost 700 people died, it is believed, as a consequence of consuming rapeseed oil adulterated with aniline intended for use as an industrial lubricant, but sold in 1981 as olive oil in Spain (see toxic oil syndrome).
The grades of oil extracted from the olive fruit can be classified as:
- Virgin means the oil was produced by the use of physical means and no chemical treatment. The term virgin oil referring to production is different from Virgin Oil on a retail label (see next section).
- Refined means that the oil has been chemically treated to neutralize strong tastes (characterized as defects) and neutralize the acid content (free fatty acids). Refined oil is commonly regarded as lower quality than virgin oil; oils with the retail labels extra-virgin olive oil and virgin olive oil cannot contain any refined oil.
- Olive pomace oil means oil extracted from the pomace using solvents, mostly hexane, and by heat.
Quantitative analysis can determine the oil's acidity, defined as the percent, measured by weight, of free oleic acid it contains. This is a measure of the oil's chemical degradation; as the oil degrades, more fatty acids are freed from the glycerides, increasing the level of free acidity and thereby increasing rancidity. Another measure of the oil's chemical degradation is the organic peroxide level, which measures the degree to which the oil is oxidized, another cause of rancidity.
To classify it by taste, olive oil is subjectively judged by a panel of professional tasters in a blind taste test. This is also called its organoleptic quality.
In countries that adhere to the standards of the IOOC the labels in stores show an oil's grade.
- Extra-virgin olive oil comes from virgin oil production only, contains no more than 0.8% acidity, and is judged to have a superior taste. Extra Virgin olive oil accounts for less than 10% of oil in many producing countries. It is used on salads, added at the table to soups and stews and for dipping.
- Virgin olive oil comes from virgin oil production only, has an acidity less than 2%, and is judged to have a good taste.
- Pure olive oil. Oils labeled as Pure olive oil or Olive oil are usually a blend of refined and virgin production oil.
- Olive oil is a blend of virgin and refined production oil, of no more than 1.5% acidity. It commonly lacks a strong flavor.
- Olive pomace oil is refined pomace olive oil often blended with some virgin oil. It is fit for consumption, but may not be described simply as olive oil. It has a more neutral flavor than pure or virgin olive oil, making it unfashionable among connoisseurs; however, it has the same fat composition as regular olive oil, rendering it the same health benefits. It also has a high smoke point, and thus is widely used in restauraunts as well as home cooking in some countries.
- Lampante oil is olive oil not suitable as food; lampante comes from olive oil's long-standing use in oil-burning lamps. Lampante oil is mostly used in the industrial market.
- Refined olive oil is the olive oil obtained from virgin olive oils by refining methods that do not lead to alterations in the initial glyceridic structure. It has a free acidity, expressed as oleic acid, of not more than 0.3 grams per 100 grams (0.3%) and its other characteristics correspond to those fixed for this category in this standard. This is obtained by refining virgin olive oils with a high acidity level and/or organoleptic defects that are eliminated after refining. Over 50% of the oil produced in the Mediterranean area is of such poor quality that it must be refined to produce an edible product. Note that no solvents have been used to extract the oil, but it has been refined with the use of charcoal and other chemical and physical filters. An obsolete equivalent is "pure olive oil".
As of Apr 27, 2010 there are new regulations
As the United States is not a member, the IOOC retail grades have no legal meaning in that country; terms such as "extra virgin" may be used without legal restrictions.
- U.S. Grade A or U.S. Fancy possesses a free fatty acid content of not more than 1.4% and is "free from defects";
- U.S. Grade B or U.S. Choice possesses a free fatty acid content of not more than 2.5% and is "reasonably free from defects";
- U.S. Grade C or U.S. Standard possesses a free fatty acid content of not more than 3.0% and is "fairly free from defects";
- U.S. Grade D or U.S. Substandard possesses a free fatty acid content greater than 3.0% and "fails to meet the requirements of U.S. Grade C".
These grades are entirely voluntary and are available from the USDA on a fee-for-service basis.
The following may be found in olive oil labels:
- "100% Pure Olive Oil" is often the lowest quality available in a retail store: better grades would have "virgin" on the label.
- "Made from refined olive oils" means that the taste and acidity were chemically controlled.
- "From hand-picked olives" implies that the oil is of better quality, since producers harvesting olives by mechanical methods are inclined to leave olives to over-ripen to increase yield.
- Cold pressed means "that the oil was not heated over a certain temperature (usually 80 degrees Fahrenheit) during processing, thus retaining more nutrients and undergoing less degradation."
- First cold pressed means "that the fruit of the olive was crushed exactly one time-i.e., the first press. The cold refers to the temperature range of the fruit at the time it is crushed." In Calabria (Italy) the olives are collected in October. In regions like Tuscany or Liguria, the olives collected in November and ground often at night are too cold to be processed efficiently without heating. The paste is regularly heated above the environmental temperatures, which may be as low as 10-15 °C, to extract the oil efficiently with only physical means. Olives pressed in warm regions like Southern Italy or Northern Africa may be pressed at significantly higher temperatures although not heated. While it is important that the pressing temperatures be as low as possible (generally below 35 °C) there is no international reliable definition of "cold pressed".
Furthermore, there is no "second" press of virgin oil, so the term "first press" means only that the oil was produced in a press vs. other possible methods.
- The label may indicate that the oil was bottled or packed in a stated country. This does not necessarily mean that the oil was produced there. The origin of the oil may sometimes be marked elsewhere on the label; it may be a mixture of oils from more than one country.