Snake Oil?

Increasingly subject to fraudulent practices, olive oil is yet another product that is better to buy close to home



In the olive oil market, not everything is as green as it seems. Much of the “extra virgin” oil with which Americans cook is nothing better than cheap nut oil blended with low-grade olive oil, coloring and artificial flavors. Most of this fraudulent product comes from overseas, most notably, from Italy.

But in California, where olive oil production is currently exploding like the big bang, the industry is closely watched and regulated by the California Olive Oil Council (COOC) based in Berkeley, and many producers consider the young local industry to be the most reliable source of true and untarnished extra virgin olive oil in the world.

Spain currently leads the world’s industry in production volume, generating 35 percent of all olive oil. While the United States produces less than 1 percent of the globe’s total, the California olive oil market is growing freakishly fast. This fall, the state’s 14,000 acres of trees will produce some 750,000 gallons of oil, surpassing France’s production. Within five years, it is projected that California’s production will leap to 5 million gallons. Experts predict a conservative figure of 20 million gallons by 2020. The bulk of the influx is occurring in the Central Valley, but many North Bay growers are creating artisanal products worth their weight in green gold.

The California Olive Ranch in Oroville controls approximately one-third of the state’s oil production, according to vice president of sales and marketing Alan Greene. Such consolidation of business could be a good thing in terms of wide-scale quality control; Greene himself is president of the COOC, and his olive oils are as bitter, fruity and pungent as the most discerning tasting panel could ask for.

Overseas, the European Union and the International Olive Council (IOC) share the job of governing quality control within Italy, other EU nations and other member countries of the IOC, which include nations in Africa, the Middle East and the Southern Hemisphere. However, no governing body exerts adequate control over olive oil exports, and untested products regularly go out the door dressed as “extra virgin” olive oil. Just as readily, the FDA does not test incoming olive oil as it heads to shelves across the country.

“Extra virgin” is a measure of an oil’s purity and quality. The COOC’s system of identifying and certifying extra virgin olive oil is modeled closely after the IOC’s system, in which an oil’s “defects” are definitive properties, not matters of opinion. Most defects come from mistreatment of the olives, and trained tasters can detect whether the olives were exposed to dirt, manure or grease during harvest, transport and processing.

The olives may also be bruised during harvest, which facilitates fermentation. Fermentation also results from fruit fly infestation, exposure to water or mold growth. Fermentation, in turn, produces free fatty acid, detectable both by lab analysis and by taste (the pro tasters call the flavor “winey”). The COOC limits extra virgin olive oil to an acid level of 0.5 percent or less. The IOC is slightly less stringent, enforcing a 0.8 percent limit.

On the other end of the spectrum, olive oils of more that 3.3 percent free fatty acid cannot legally be sold for human consumption in Europe, though some hustlers are known to flavor this so-called lamp oil, or lampante, with beta-carotene, color it with chlorophyll, falsely label it and market it as extra virgin.  An oil’s peroxide level, a measure of oxidation, and its ultraviolet value, which indicates light damage, must also meet standard minimums to qualify as extra virgin.

Even Italians guzzle the fake stuff, according to Maurizio Bogoni, head agronomist at Ruffino Winery in Tuscany. Ruffino and other Italian estate growers cannot sufficiently supply the nation’s oil consumption, and thus Italy relies on imports from Turkey, Morocco, Spain and elsewhere. The shipments frequently arrive as old, soggy, unprocessed olives, which in turn produce oils ranging from flavorless to rancid, though adulteration adequately hides these defects from the average consumer, who is easily convinced by TV and magazine ads that many big-business oil swindlers are honest producers, says Bogoni.

And there have been two high-profile busts of adulterated Italian olive oil just this year, with police raiding a factory in March and arresting 23 people; in April, some 40 Italians were taken in after police determined that seven olive oil plants were utilizing fraudulent practices.

In the U.S., imported oil labeled as extra virgin may run five to 10 bucks per liter, but experts contend that olive oil is too difficult and costly to produce to allow for such low prices; such “deals” are merely shams, they say. Most true extra virgin olive oils from Italy run $20 to $40 for a half- to one-liter bottle. California Olive Ranch sells its half-liters for $11.99. Stockton’s Bozzano Olive Ranch sells the same size for $16 to $22.

Sorelle Paradiso, a Mill Valley producer that crushes Central Valley fruit, sells its organic extra virgin oils at $35 to $48 per half-liter bottle. Farms like Petaluma’s McEvoy Ranch and Hollister’s Pietra Santa Winery, whose bright and pungent organic blend runs $35 for a half-liter, hand-pick their olives. But the industry is trending toward mechanization.

Nurstech, an agricultural development corporation with three bases in the Central Valley, is leading the way in developing a system called super high density, or SHD, farming. While common groves accommodate 150 to 200 trees per acre, SHD groves may bear 700 to 1,000 trees per acre. The trees are grown in shrub form to allow for harvesting with an industrial harvester. This tree-shaking machine straddles the rows as it goes and can be operated by two people at a rate of a tree every two seconds. Super high density farming eliminates 90 percent of manual human labor, say advocates. Nurstech marketing rep Jeffers Richardson says that until now, high labor costs have precluded the development of the domestic olive oil industry, but SHD technology will change that.

“The whole idea is we can use two people to harvest an entire acre in 40 minutes,” he explains. “This means we can produce more volume in less time, and ultimately it will lead to more economical prices.”

However, SHD production could lead to a homogenous industry, as only three varieties of olive—Koroneiki, Arbequina and Arbosana—can be grown in dwarf form.

In spite of the trend toward mechanization, there will always be a place for the artisans, Richardson assures. In fact, the California industry may depend on them.

“We need the romance of the small-scale producer making excellent artisan olive oil,” he says, “but to bring olive oil to more people we need to mechanize and develop the industry at a larger scale.”

Hand-harvesters deserve credit, as olive oil production is a painfully slow process. Olive trees may produce a gallon of oil per tree each season, though many produce no more than a liter, says Paul Ferrari, owner of A.G. Ferrari Foods, an importer of artisanal Italian products. To ensure A.G. Ferrari’s product quality, Ferrari visits each of his producer’s farms, ranches and orchards at least once a year.

“If they have 1,200 trees and they’re offering you x amount of oil, it’s easy to know if it’s for real or not,” says Ferrari, who has seen fraud in the orchards first-hand. In one instance, a farm that had recently lost all its trees to a severe frost was offering Ferrari “estate” olive oil which could only have been sourced elsewhere, he says.

Consumers commonly believe Italian extra virgin olive oil to be the best in the world, but Joe Bozzano, whose family comes from Liguria and Tuscany, believes that Californian oils are perfectly excellent.

“I think a lot of it is just the tradition, the romance and the history of Italy that gives it a premium over anything else when you can print it on the bottle,” he says. “It’s that whole Under the Tuscan Sun thing, but I would certainly put the high-end California oils up against the best in the world.”

Regulations in olive oil marketing are growing tighter, and the days may be numbered for olive oil hustlers. The USDA has released for public comment a proposal that would allow producers abroad and domestically to submit their bottled oils for analysis. If deemed extra virgin by international standards, the product would receive a USDA-certified extra virgin stamp. Legally, other producers could still use the term, no matter how rank their oil.

In California, though, such mislabeling could become illegal if current legislation from State Sen. Patricia Wiggins, D-Santa Rosa, becomes law. The bill, SB 634, would protect the term “extra virgin” and make the mislabeling of any olive oil being sold publicly within the state a breach of the law.

After so much talk, the question remains: Who cares if oil is extra virgin, especially if it takes a trained tasting panel and lab equipment to tell?

One reason is health. Extra virgin olive oils contain antioxidants and polyphenols, both of which increase longevity. Unique varietal variation in smell and taste is another. Some, for example, especially Arbequina oils, are buttery soft with traces of tropical fruit, while others, such as the Bozzano Tuscan blend, rake the throat with their pungency. But for some appreciators of fine things, consuming extra virgin olive oil is largely a matter of principle: There is bad coffee, bad beer and bad wine. There is also bad olive oil, and if you don’t know what you’re buying, you’re missing out.


A wine-dark flood drenches the state each year at crush time. It’s exciting, tourists love it, and it’s old news. But a lesser subsurface current that goes largely unseen is gaining speed and attention: olive oil. Though European, low-quality imports may be cheap and the color may be right, only at the Olive Press in Sonoma can one watch the making of the oil onsite and buy it one hour later—guaranteed extra virgin. The shop, founded in 1995 by olive growers Ed Stolman and Deborah Rogers, is a tasting bar and retailer, carrying some 10 olive oils alongside vinegars, tapenades, cured olives, ceramics, books and gift sets.

The Olive Press’ claim to fame, though, is its custom crush oil mill, the first such facility in Sonoma County when it opened. Since then, the Olive Press has gained a following among growers with trees but no oil-making machinery. During harvest time, in late fall and winter, the Olive Press may be busy milling fruit 24 hours a day, as growers who can manage the minimum crush-load of 800 pounds drop off their fruit by appointment and receive it again as oil within hours.

For the little people with just a few trees, “community press” day, scheduled this year for Nov. 30, offers hobbyists the chance to bottle their own estate olive oil. Participants may bring as little as a five-pound handful of olives or up to 300 pounds. The fruit is combined for a communal crush. The olives are hammered, the oatmeal-thick pulp centrifuged, the oil and particles layered out and the oil received in a large vat as a blend. Customers receive their oil at the same percentage by weight as the initial weight of their olives before processing.

The Olive Press bottles its own brand, as well. Sourcing several varieties from orchards around Northern California, the facility mills the olives into oil and stores it in barrels to maintain freshness. As inventory sells, the Olive Press staff bottles more oil as needed to keep shelves stocked with a fresh supply—all guaranteed extra virgin.  

“We’ve been saying for years, ‘Why buy olive oil from Europe when you don’t know how old it is, where it’s from or even what’s in it?'” says Rogers. “With us, you can watch us make it, taste it and buy it under one roof.”

The price may be right for Italian lamp oil, but the Olive Press offers patrons healthy, pungent and sudsy extra virgin oil from an operation as honest as the fruit that enters the press.

The Olive Press, 24724 Arnold Drive (Highway 121). Open daily. 707.939.8900. A new location for tasting and retail has also opened in Napa at the Oxbow Public Market, 610 First St., adjacent to COPIA. 707.226.2579.

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