Adulteration and Labeling Lies in the Olive Oil Industry

Posted by Hannah Broaddus

Olive Oil PouringThese days, it seems as though exaggerations and half-truths in the business marketplace have become a standard practice.  Advertisements display each business as "the best of the best", with the lowest prices or highest quality ingredients.

Luckily, we as consumers take everything with a grain of salt and shelter ourselves with a sizable veil of skepticism.  Not only do we anticipate these misrepresentations, but we have come to tolerate them as the norm.  In fact, we now expect to have to ignore these wild marketing tactics.  But what happens when the smaller foundational promises that a company builds its’ business upon are are also just false marketing?

Let us consider the olive oil industry as an example.  If a bottle of Olive Oil displayed a label that read, “World’s Best Olive Oil” most of us (except the most adventurous or gullible consumers) would ignore their self-proclaimed title as a marketing exaggeration-- a tall-tale used to increase sales and company profits.  But let’s turn the bottle over and inspect the nutrition label which proudly reads, “Ingredients: Extra Virgin Olive Oil.”  Who among us would assume that proclamation itself, that Extra Virgin Olive Oil is the one and only ingredient, is also a marketing ploy?  Not many.

However, it is clear that this tactic of providing false labeling is now used every day to increase company profits. Tom Mueller’s 2007 article, Slippery Business, published in The New Yorker gave proof that bulk suppliers are adulterating their olive oil every day by mixing it with cheaper oils, dying it, flavoring it, and doing whatever it takes to sell their product for less than the competition.  UC Davis also completed a widely accredited study that offered the same findings.  Numerous lawsuits have been filed, and companies have been caught in the act.  Through this, we’ve learned that almost all of the “trusted” national brands of olive oil that we purchase daily from our local grocers are not in fact 100% Olive Oil as they tout so proudly on their label.  They are much less than that: a mix of lower grades or lesser quality oils that proudly wear deception as a colorful paper coat.

So as consumers, how do we not know more about this?  Why have we not boycotted these brands?  And why aren’t there more of us talking about this injustice far and wide?  The answer is simple:  We don’t have easy access to the proof that we want.

Proof is out there, for sure, but it is only in the hands of those who look for it.  For example, a purchasing agent of a US based company was looking to source bulk olive oil.  Having found that her previous wholesale supplier was scamming her before, she had but one requirement:  it had to be absolutely 100% authentic olive oil.  She went to her local grocers and bought 15 bottles of Extra Virgin Olive Oil, hoping to work backwards to find  a new bulk supplier.

She contracted with a chemical testing company to help her to determine which olive oils she should trust.  Clearly, she knew that a company’s word was simply not enough anymore.  They performed analyses on each of her sample bottles and when the test results came back, 14 of the 15 national brands were determined to be cut. 

So how do we find a solution?  First off, we must extend our veil of skepticism.  It is a given that we do not blindly believe every marketing claim on the front of the label; likewise, we should not blindly believe the back.  We also must ask the FDA to vigilantly stop this injustice, as they have proven to not take action until we as consumers first take a true interest.  And last, we must demand that the companies we purchase from give us substantial proof that we are getting exactly what we are paying for.

Topics: Industry Trends

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