16 March 2017
Traded since the Bronze Age, the product Homer called “liquid gold” has exploded in popularity over the last several decades. Nearly 3.3 million tons of olive oil were purchased in 2015, a 73% increase in global consumption over 25 years.
In 2015, Americans purchased almost 350,000 tons, up 250% over the same period. Germans, Brits and Japanese consumed some 65,000 tons, up 465%, 763% and 1,400%, respectively.
As olive oil’s popularity has risen, a darker side of the industry has emerged: corruption and counterfeiting.
Worldwide, the market is saturated with fake products. One study found that 69% of all olive oil does not meet the standard required for the “extra-virgin” label.
In fact, many of the bottles you find at your local supermarket labelled as “authentic Italian,” “virgin” or “extra-virgin” are most likely falsely labelled – while many others are cut with cheaper oils, and sometimes even chemicals.
In Italy, the so-called “agro mafia” has infiltrated every facet of the market, raking in an estimated $16 billion a year. It’s reliably reported that a staggering 80% of Italian olive oil is fraudulent.
In February, Italian police arrested 33 members of a criminal enterprise exporting fake extra virgin olive oil to the US, seizing $42.8 million of assets.
While many countries suffer from olive oil corruption, Italy takes the top spot. It’s been the scene of several major scandals in recent years over fraud and mislabeling from some of the biggest brands, including Bertoli, Sasso and Carapelli.
As authorities step up the battle, the situation could at last change. The Italian government and private organizations have teamed up to launch a “super seal,” which should hopefully help authenticate genuine products by using individually numbered seals with QR codes that are attached to the necks of olive oil bottles.