Along the heel of the Italian boot lies a region that produces almost half of Italy's olives and olive oil. There are somewhere between 50 and 60 million olive trees in Puglia where I visited recently, 12 or 13 times as many trees as people (4 million).
From Ostuni, an ancient village on the edge of the Murgia plateau, you look toward the Adriatic, five miles to the east, and see nothing but olive trees, many of them centuries old, half a million acres all told. That's about the same area as all of Pierce County.
The region lacks rivers and doesn't get much rain, so its agricultural potential, down on the flatland, is pretty much limited to olives and grapes. (Puglia is also Italy's most prolific grape producer, with powerful reds like Primitivo — Zinfandel's identical twin —that ripen perfectly in the cool Mediterranean breezes of the Salento peninsula.) But it is the olives, specifically, that concern us here.
In 2007, The New Yorker published a 5,500-word article titled "Slippery Business" about colossal levels of fraud in the sale of what's known as Extra Virgin Olive Oil. Two thirds of what's sold in American supermarkets as EVOO, estimates Tom Mueller, the article's author, isn't the real thing at all.
Oil from olives, perhaps, but hardly the rigorously controlled and strictly defined "first press." It's even worse in the food service industry, with adulterated soybean and sunflower oils regularly passed off as higher quality olive oil. What's more, any manner of imported vegetable pressings from Greece or Turkey or Tunisia are regularly offloaded in ports along Puglia's coast, processed to remove unwanted characteristics, and resold as "Italian." (That step is actually legal as long as the intent isn't to mislead consumers). But then, often with the assistance of a corrupt bureaucrat or two, the stuff is relabelled as olive oil and often "transformed" into extra virgin.
The fraud is relatively easy to detect analytically but almost impossible to prosecute. Not even a notorious case, in Spain 20 years ago, in which 300 people died from adulterated olive oil, slowed the tide of fraud. In Italy, on the regional and national level, the crooked operators are very well connected politically. Supposedly independent industry associations are toothless.
The European Union doles out massive subsidies to the "olive oil" producers but has yet to recoup any of its fraudulently obtained grants. When Italy's respected Guarda di Finanza (the military police arm of the Finance Ministry, responsible for drug smuggling investigations, border patrol, and the like) does manage to act, the bad guys stall until the statute of limitations runs out. Experts who challenge the Big Oil producers are regularly sued for slander. Stateside, the various agencies responsible for food safety and domestic security have, thus far, claimed that mislabeled olive oil isn't a big priority.
Who's to blame? In Italy, at any rate, the buck stops at the very top. "[Former Prime Minister Silvio] Berlusconi's role is indirect but meaningful in olive oil crime — creating and enhancing a sense that law and order is irrelevant," Mueller wrote to me in an email.
Mueller, who lives in Italy and has family roots in eastern Washington, has now expanded his New Yorker article into a book, Extra Virginity. He updates the various court cases he described (no one went to jail) and widens the horizon of the Italian frauds to the rest of the world.
The United States is the third-largest consumer of olive oil in the world, a market approaching two billion dollars a year, yet has some of the loosest laws on earth concerning olive oil purity or honest labelling. The Food and Drug Administration and the U.S. Department of Agriculture have no budget for testing, let alone enforcing laws against fraud.
The problem, as Mueller quickly discovers, is the huge reward, with vrtually no risk, in mislabelling the oil. Extra virgin has all but lost its meaning.
I spoke with Mueller by phone recently, and he reminded me that olive oil is a truly amazing substance. "We shouldn't be scaring people away," he said. Indeed there's been a huge increase in olive oil sales in the United States, thanks to publicity about the health-enhancing properties of the Mediterranean Diet.
Olive oil is, as Mueller puts it, "an age-old food with space-age qualities that medical science is just beginning to understand." There's even an intriguing chemical relationship between EVOO and the anti-inflammatory ibuprofen. The tragedy is the temptation to dumb it down, by stripping from real Extra Virgin oil the specific characteristics (fruity, peppery, bitter) that make it the real thing.
Does olive oil have to be Italian? Hardly. In fact, Whole Foods now sells Extra Virgin Olive Oil from Turkey as well as California. (Many Whole Foods oils are also labelled to certify their origins.) Does it have to come from gnarled trees growing on a hillside in Tuscany? Hardly. Excellent oils are produced on vast, quasi-industrial groves in Spain, as well as Sicily and Puglia, even if the bottling plants put them in jars with Tuscan scenery.
There's a lot of unnecessary mystery in the production of olive oil. Those great stone mills are ancient history. Today's harvested olives are ground up with large metal burrs, the paste stirred in huge tanks, and the liquid extracted by centrifuge. Trader Joe's website, in a convoluted, 1,900-word article on olive oil, calls this step "centrifugetion." The TJ's description continues: "Because oils are mixed together to achieve balance and style, judging oil by the country of origin has passed into legend. Nowadays, oils from all growing regions and countries can be blended together to produce tastes and styles that have specific uses." So TJ's lowest-cost oil is labeled "Packed in Italy," which doesn't reveal much about its origins.
Ironically, the U.S. is not part of the International Olive Council, a 50-year-old rulemaking body set up by the United Nations, relying instead on standards set by the Department of Agriculture. Still, there are some surprising results from the University of California, Davis, which is in the heart of America's olive-oil producing region.
In a report a year ago, UC Davis researchers found that 69 percent of imported "extra virgin" olive oil (and 10 percent of domestic oil) wasn't what it pretended to be. Even the best-known brands showed signs of adulteration —blended with inferior grades of olive oil or cheaper oils from soybeans, hazelnuts, and sunflower seeds.
The lone import to receive top ratings on all points was Costco's Organic Extra Virgin Oil, which sells for one-fifth the price of competing brands.