Extra Virginity: Writer Tom Mueller’s New Exposé of Olive Oil Fraud

Tom Mueller calls the United States “an oil criminal’s dream.” Mueller, an investigative journalist, is the author of an important new book that digs into the fraud that’s wreaking havoc in the olive oil business – in this case, smelly, rancid and outright bogus oils that are peddled as pricier extra virgin olive oil. Tom Mueller

Mueller, whose book was inspired by a 2007 New Yorker article, blames loose laws and lax enforcement for oil fraud here. “Much of the fake olive oil sold in America is imported,” he writes in his book Extra Virginity (W.W. Norton & Co., 2012). He cites a “rare intervention” in 2006 when federal marshals seized 61,000 liters “of what was supposedly extra virgin olive oil” from a New Jersey warehouse; it was really mostly soybean oil.

Two recent studies conducted in Australia and at the Davis campus of the University of California, meanwhile, have found widespread mislabeling in the extra virgin grade. (We’re conducting a Q&A with Tom Mueller and would love your input on what to ask. Click here to go to our Facebook page and post a question.)

How rampant is olive oil fraud here? Mueller quotes an Italian olive oil producer who estimates 50 percent of the oil sold in this country is bogus. Mueller notes the U.S. Food and Drug Administration considers olive oil adulteration a low priority. “We’re inclined to spend our money on things where there’s a clear public health benefit,” an FDA officials tells Mueller.

But there are promising signs on the horizon. And both olive oil producers and consumers here have a role to play.

“America, it seems, is developing an appetite for good olive oil,” Mueller writes. “What’s more, though the U.S. currently imports 98 percent of its olive oil, within its borders lies a production area of enormous potential.”

That area is California, which Mueller calls “potentially the most important new world of oil.”

“Olives, highly adapted to hot, dry climates, thrive here,” he says of the Golden State. He adds that in the past 15 years “Californians have started to get serious about making first-quality oil.”

For our part, we go to great lengths to ensure the oil we make is of the highest quality. It’s certified as true extra virgin by the California Olive Oil Council. The oil must first pass rigorous lab and taste tests to earn that certification.

We also want you to know as much as possible about the oil that’s in each of our bottles.

Every bottle has a date showing when the olives were harvested. We also give you a “best by” date. Moreover, we keep close track of our olives from when they’re picked to the time the oil is bottled. In fact, we can tell you where the particular olives were grown that were used to make the oil in each bottle.

Consumers, too, can help ensure quality olive oil is sold in this country. If Americans loved olive oil half as much as the typical Italian, Mueller says, our consumption would “far exceed” the three largest olive oil consuming nations: Greece, Italy and Spain.

That would have important ramifications, as our friend Paul Miller notes. Miller, the president of the Australian Olive Oil Association, tells Mueller Australia helped set the “new quality agenda” for olive oil — “but there are only 23 million of us.”

“America, with 300 million strong,” Miller adds, “has a vital role to play in taking this agenda global, and making it stick.”

Your friends at California Olive Ranch