Can new techniques help fight olive oil fraudsters?

Premium pricing and high consumer demand for extra virgin olive oil (EVOO) has long made it a target for criminals seeking to profit by passing off inferior or fake products. In fact it is now one of the world’s most adulterated food products with fraudulent practices amounting globally to €30 billion per year.

But help could soon be at hand. In May 2021, independent researchers in Italy announced the development of a new, simple and fast analysis technique that can identify 45 different chemical elements found in EVOO. Aiding quicker and more accurate determination of provenance, it could potentially assist in the ongoing crackdown on oil counterfeiters.

A slippery issue with serious consequences

As well as the direct economic impact on consumers who are paying over the odds for poor quality goods, olive oil fraud destabilises the industry and adversely affects legitimate businesses. With profit margins for adulterated EVOO described as “three times that of cocaine”, it is also fueling criminal organizations within the EU.

In some cases, it can also be a serious health hazard. One of the worst incidents occurred in Spain in 1981, when 1,200 people died almost instantly and 25,000 people were hospitalised with neurological damage after consuming olive oil adulterated with industrial rapeseed oil. This product contained aniline, which is a severe neurotoxin.

An ongoing issue for Europe

Between September 2016 and December 2019, 32 cases of fraud were recorded in the global olive oil industry, 20 of which occurred in Europe. The most common infringements were marketing virgin olive oil as extra virgin as well as selling blended olive and vegetable oils as pure olive oil.

Europe accounts for more than 70% of the world’s olive oil production, so the EU takes the issue very seriously. In 2016, the EU funded the Oleum project to develop better techniques to verify olive oil quality and ensure consistency in producer declarations.

This project together with the EU’s existing regulatory and control framework and conformity checks have resulted in significantly improved olive oil quality. Nonetheless, recent analysis by an Italian journal found that almost 50% (7 out of 15) of EVOO bottles tested contained olive oil of lower quality.

Tougher tests could expose new risks

As new analytical techniques come to the fore, we may well see new illegal oil blends and fraudulent practices unmasked. Food manufacturers and retailers could find themselves exposed to food fraud in ways that they had not anticipated.

In most instances, being at the receiving end of EVOO fraud may not pose a health threat to your customers, but it could seriously impact brand reputation and loyalty. Having a well-planned and tested recall strategy in place that covers food fraud as well as food allergies, contamination and spoilage should be best practice for food related manufacturers, suppliers and retailers. To learn more about the rise and fall of recall trends and to acquire knowledge about how to plan for one, download our latest edition of the 2021 recall index report.

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