Olive oil is one of the most important products that is produced in Spain. Everything is drenched in “aceite de olive,” from the toasted baguettes that are served at breakfast to the flavored rice of traditional paella. The oil is more delicious than any I have ever tried in the United States, and at first, I believed that was due to the fact that Spain is the largest producer of olive oil in the world. Although the proximity of the farms that grow and produce olive oils could play a role in its freshness and taste, they don’t completely account for the drastic difference in Spanish oil compared to United States’ oil.
The more I looked into the difference, the more interesting it became. Significant amounts of the olive oil that is sold in grocery stores in the United States is imported from Italy, and of that oil, about 70% of it is actually fake. It’s hard to believe at first, but it is extremely difficult and expensive to get authentic olive oil in the United States. Even in Italy, about 50% of the olive oil found on grocery store shelves isn’t real. This is due to the activity of the Italian Agromafia—who also happens to make an incredible profit from selling fake “Italian” cheese, wine, bread, and other products. The Agromafia makes their profit by producing oil of a lower quality in countries like Syria, Morocco, Tunisia, and Turkey. The fake oil is made by mixing regular, high quality extra-virgin olive oil with a cheaper oil such as canola. Then, the mixture is chemically altered so the color matches that of authentic extra virgin olive oil. Sometimes extra favors are added depending on what the mixture contains. In the end of the process, the fake olive oil is sold to major brand name companies, and distributed throughout places like the United States. The fake olive oil is cheap and easy to produce, whereas actual authentic olive oil is relative expensive and labor-intensive to make.
Food, and its authenticity, is one of the most important aspects of Italy’s culture. Because of this, there have been recent raids by Italian police in order to rid the country of fake olive oil. In December of the past year, Italian police “seized 7,000 tons of counterfeit olive oil” (Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project) that was sold on the shelves of grocery stores across the United States, Japan, and Italy. Because Spain produces almost all of it’s own olive oil, the actions of the Italian Agromafia do not affect the authenticity of Spanish oil.
Unfortunately, despite the fact the authorities in Italy are doing their best to gain control of the situation and stop the exportation of all counterfeit food products, it may be a long time before the olive oil on the shelves of American grocery stores is pure and authentic. In the meantime, I plan on thoroughly enjoying as much olive oil as I can while in Spain, and perhaps looking for an American producer of olive oil upon my return to the states. It may not be as delicious, but at least it will be authentic.
(Here is a link to the crime report regarding the fake olive oil and here is a link to a really interesting 60 Minutes special about the production of counterfeit food products and the Agromafia in general.