21 Crazy Facts About The Unbelievably Corrupt Olive Oil Industry*

Olive Oil

Photo: Michael W. May / Flickr

Olive oil has played a prominent part in Mediterranean culture for over 2,000 years and is beloved by foodies the world over.However, the industry has a dirty little secret.

A lot of the “Italian extra virgin olive oil” isn’t what it says on the tin. Sometimes it’s not extra virgin, sometimes it’s not Italian — and sometimes it’s not even made from olives.

Here’s what you need to know about one of the world’s most lucrative criminal endeavours.

*An earlier version of this article included a photo where the Olive oil label iO was visible. The inclusion of this brand was not intentional and not meant to imply the group was guilty of the crimes described in the article. We have changed the photo at the request of iO.

Olive oil is far more expensive than other oils, but surprisingly easy to fake.


The fake industry seems to have almost as long a history as the real industry.

In the past merchants used to mix the oil with lard.


It's probably because of how valuable it is — way back in ancient Rome, per-capita consumption of olive oil was as much as 50 litres every year.

Containers were painted with the weight of oil, the name of the farm where the olives were pressed, the merchant who shipped the oil, and the official who verified this information.


The fake industry continued into modern times — for example, in the original Godfather novel, Vito Corleone was based on a real-life olive oil mafioso named Joe Profaci

Check out the Wikipedia entry on the 'olive oil king' here.

Domenico Ribatti, once the world's largest dealer in olive oil, was even sentenced to 13 years in prison in the '90s.


With EU subsidies, a whole new dimension was added to the fraud.

Between 1985 and 2000, the European Court of Auditors reported that 87 per cent of misappropriated EU subsidies for olive oil bottlers had gone to Italy.


Additionally, olive oil consumption is on the rise — it's risen 37 per cent in Southern Europe and more than a 100 per cent in North America


These factors are thought to have led members of organised gangs into the industry.

Former U.K. trading standards officer Stuart Shotten argues that this is because food counterfeiting sentences tend to be half as strict as drug charges.

The words of one investigator to New Yorker writer Tom Mueller.

In 2005 Italian authorities broke up one criminal gang with 100,000 litres of fake olive oil — worth almost $8 million.


Gangs have grown developed methods of evading chemical testing.

Taste-testing is harder to fool but rarely supported by the EU due to costs.


In April 2007, Italy's agriculture minister admitted the government had investigated 787 olive oil producers.

205 were found guilty of adulteration, false labelling, and other infractions.


In 2007 it was reported that only 4 per cent of olive oil leaving Italy was pure Italian olive oil


Italy sells three times as much olive oil as it produces.


The Olive Oil Times defines extra virgin as:

In chemical terms extra virgin olive oil is described as having a free acidity, expressed as oleic acid, of not more than 0.8 grams per 100 grams and a peroxide value of less than 20 milliequivalent O2. It must be produced entirely by mechanical means without the use of any solvents, and under temperatures that will not degrade the oil (less than 86°F, 30°C).



US authorities only brought their standards into check with the rest of the world last year.

The FDA has been known for not testing oil.


Perhaps because of these factors, it's thought that 50% of olive oil in America is, to some degree, fraudulent.


The situation arose when street vendors sold tainted cooking oil.

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