Extra Virgin Suicide -- Opportunity for Artisanal Producers

Posted on January 31, 2014 by Rebecca Ponzi

This week the New York Times published "Extra Virgin Suicide", a very simple and graphic explanation of the corruption in the olive oil industry, specifically, Italian Extra Virgin Olive Oil. Just yesterday they made some revisions to the original article due to it's sensational nature and inaccuracies.  This infographic went viral worldwide and ended up in our small, local newspaper in Porto San Giorgio, Italy. Michel and I touched on this very issue at our Launch Party on January 12th with Viva Verde Founding Members for Casal Cristiana during our U.S. visit.   It is a huge problem because consumers don't know if they can trust the product they see in the supermarket.  However, while large companies try to pass off adulterated olive oil as extra virgin olive oil (EVOO), there are lots of honest producers.  Plus, the reality is that consumers have become savvy to good taste and are beginning to inquire in detail about the EVOO they are buying.  This is great!  As more people travel throughout the world and have sampled real EVOO, they ponder, "why doesn't my olive oil taste like this from the supermarket?"  The probable reason is that it's NOT REAL EVOO. But the question fades once they return home to their routine of grocery shopping and cooking.  While Italy has been singled out in this particular article, over the past several years, corruption has been discovered with large producers in Spain as well.  I suppose where there is money to be made on a large-scale, manipulation of an industry that has been unregulated since its inception appears to be too easy.  Although new regulation is coming to the forefront, it is still pretty loose.  The best testing available is using your old fashion senses, such as smell and taste.  This can be challenging because if consumers haven't frequently used real EVOO, then their palate has not been trained to determine whether it's the real deal or an adulterated version.  I welcome the opportunity to educate consumers about EVOO and to support small, artisanal producers who take pride in producing brilliant tasting EVOO. 

It is a culinary tragedy to pass off fake EVOO for many reasons.  For starters, you are missing out on an array of condiments for meat, salads, vegetables, pasta, etc.  There are hundreds of olive varieties determining its flavor so the experience is vast within the kitchen.  Today while dining at a small trattoria in Ripatransone, a hill town village, I had the luxury of drizzling fresh EVOO over my antipasti of lentils, artichokes, corn and garbanzo beans.  Lunch continued with risotto with seafood and then was finished off with grilled pork and sauteed mushrooms.  The last course was delightful with a dash of EVOO, lemon and sea salt.  With fake EVOO you are deprived of the flavor and smell of freshly crushed olives that should emit from a bottle.  But the biggest crime is the marketing malarkey touting these oils as "healthy".  Fake EVOO is not healthy.  In fact, it could be a health danger for some people if they are allergic to foods that are not identified on the label.  So if fake EVOO has been cut with soybean oil and you are allergic to it, you can see the potential problem.  And of course, where are all the antioxidants that are found in real EVOO?  They are greatly reduced or non-existent with tampered EVOO. Two years ago when I was living in the U.S. I thought was buying real EVOO.  Once I moved to Italy and used EVOO daily, I realized my knowledge was limited.  On our last visit back to Oregon in January I stopped at many places with olive oil tastings and ate at restaurants where they had "special" olive oil on the table.  One out of six places, delivered in terms of real artisanal EVOO.

Scare tactics and generalizations tend to send consumers into a panic and often creates irrational reactions.  The article published this week merely scratches the surface on the olive oil industry and I find it incredibly exciting to be part of an industry that is on the cusp of change.  So my advice is ... do your homework.  I believe with continued education about EVOO, increased global awareness and the crack down on the EVOO industry provides opportunity for the small, artisan producers who aren't out to make a fortune, but to simply make a living, keep their family olive groves in production and carry on a tradition that supported them financially and health-wise for multiple generations.  Out of the many EVOO bandits who are wheeling and dealing fake EVOO throughout the world, there are many hard working souls who are not.  Build your confidence in knowing real EVOO.  Read labels, sample and then use it often.  Just like wine, you will begin to train your palate to flavor and smell, and then eating becomes so much more fun!

Next blog I will touch on reading labels and how so much information can actually mean nothing!  So for buying and storing tips to keep your EVOO safe and fresh, look for my next blog next week!  In the meantime, buon appetito!

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