Italy's extra virgin olive oil isn't always so virgin, or so Italian

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This story is based on a radio interview. Listen to the full interview.

Audio Transcript:

Carol Hills: It's good for your health, and the best chefs wouldn't be caught without it. I'm talking about Extra Virgin Olive Oil, and Americans love the stuff. But are we getting the real stuff? A graphic piece in the New York Times this week suggests not. It focused on extra virgin olive oil from Italy, much of which is said to be neither purely extra virgin, nor purely from Italy.
Tom Mueller has researched this extensively. He's author of "Extra Virginity: The Sublime and Scandalous World of Olive Oil.”

Tom Mueller: A lot of my book celebrates what's great about Italian oil and the amazing variety of 500 different olive types, thousands of years of tradition. Now, there are people who are uncomfortable about the fact that I have called out some of the fraudsters in Italy and named names, but frankly, they are part of the reason why something like the New York Times infrographic could happen in the first place. The few bad apples that sour the market for everyone, and drive the price down, are the reason that consumers in America are uncertain about certain types of olive oil.

Hills: Give us an example of some bad extra virgin olive oil.

Mueller: When a bottle says "packed in Italy" or "bottled in Italy," quite often if you read the fine print on the back, you'll see that it was actually from one of the following twelve Mediterranean countries. Tunisia, Spain, Morocco, and so forth. That's widespread, and unfortunately it does tend to sort of tug down the overall reputation of Italian olive oil, the good stuff. One of the biggest frauds these days is what's called deodorized oil. It's actually made from oils, but from terribly olives, rotten olives. The oil itself is inedible, but with a very gentle refining process that leaves very few chemicals tracks, it's possible to produce a neutral oil, flavorless and colorless, that can then be mixed with a little of the real stuff and sold as extra virgin. This is the biggest fraud today. Deodorized oil is something that is found in many low-grade supermarket oils around the world.

Hills: Who's doing the deodorizing of the oil?

Mueller: The people who are doing the deodorizing start with very, very low-grade olive oil to begin with. Some of the sources of really low grade oil are southern Spain and southern Italy, but it can happen all around the Mediterranean, North Africa as well. I've seen mills where there was a deodorizing column on the end of the mill, and that is, you know, sort of a dead giveaway as to what's going on here. But the deodorizing process is manifold. There are many different ways to deodorize olive oil. And the problem with these high tech techniques is that quite often, the robbers are two or three steps ahead of the cops in terms of the techniques used, and the tests that are available to law enforcers to find them.

Hills: Can you give us your worst and best experience with extra virgin olive oil?

Mueller: My best experience is following a producer in Apulia, from the trees where I got a story of each of the trees and a part of the family lore that's connected with each of the trees, to the mill where the olives were crushed, and there's an incredible scent in the air and an incredible brilliant green color of the oil coming out the seperator. And then sitting down with that family and having a meal with that olive oil. There's something kind of complete about that experience, and there's something authentic and real about how they care about this stuff. I mean, they care about it as much as they care about their kids, in some cases.
The worst experience that I've had, frankly, is a supermarket, and many supermarkets around the world. Where you walk in and see this impenetrable barrier of bottles that are impossible to understand where the oil came from, who made it. They have been so removed from that context that I loved down in Apulia, that you really don't understand the provenance of this food. And sure enough, the quality is abysmal. You know, it's rancid, it's something you wouldn't want to get near your food. And the sad part is that that dumbed down oil is killing the authentic oil, because they have the same label. They all say extra virgin, and therefore the consumer naturally reaches for the stuff that costs less.

Hills: Tom Mueller, all-round olive oil expert, and author of "Extra Virginity." Thanks so much, Tom.

Mueller: Thank you, Carol.