Did you ever think your bottle of expensive, extra virgin olive oil didn’t taste quite right?
It turns out that you were probably correct. According to a study by the U.C. Davis Olive Center at the University of California, 69% of imported oils and 10% of domestic ones didn’t meet the USDA standards for virgin or extra virgin. Many consumers don’t know what the standards are, but in general the oil should be low in acidity, free of defects, and produced without chemical treatments of any kind.
Popular oils that flunked the test include Bertolli, Filippo Berio, Colavita, Pompeian and (gasp) Rachel Ray. They were discovered to be adulterated, blended with refined oil, or generally of poor quality. American consumers spend roughly $700 million on extra virgin oil each year. Rather than investigating the quality standards, many people simply buy the most expensive oil they can find, on the assumption that it must be the best.
Having visited olive oil producers in Italy, I can pass along some basic facts. To begin with, color has no bearing on the quality of the oil. We tend to think that a deep green color indicates richness or intensity of flavor, but this is not necessarily so. Olive oil has a shelf life of one year at most. When buying oil, try to discover when the product was bottled; failing that, ask the stock clerk how long it has been sitting on the shelf. Once opened, it must be used within a month or two, or it will turn rancid. Above all, remember that extra virgin olive oil is a handcrafted, artisanal product. It’s unlikely that a company like Bertolli could crank out millions of cases.
How much research should you do? Before I spent $25 or more on a bottle of olive oil, I would at least Google the source and find out if the oil comes from a small producer with a heritage of quality, or from a multinational food conglomerate.
In the European Community, a scandal like this would be handled swiftly by the government, as most EU countries take the integrity of their products very seriously. In the U.S., we have a more satisfying solution—sue ‘em! Callahan and Blaine, a Santa Ana law firm, has filed a class action lawsuit on behalf of consumers in Orange County Superior Court. Rather than wait for your share of the spoils, I recommend that you approach the supermarket shelf with some caution and common sense.