Olive Oil, Milk, Honey Among Top Items Involved in Food Fraud – Researchers

Sobering research just out: Olive oil is among the top food items on your supermarket shelf that’s likely to be bogus. Also joining that list: milk, honey, saffron, orange juice, coffee, and apple juice. That’s according to research published in the April Journal of Food Science.

Among the adulterants found in extra virgin olive oil: cheaper ingredients like hazelnut oil, sunflower oil, refined olive oil, palm oil, peanut oil, and olive oil from a “non-authentic geographic origin” (translation: not the country the oil is said to be  from). The list goes on.

“There is a general sense that food fraud is a major global problem for the food industry,” Jeff Moore, one of the researchers, tells MSNBC.com. “But no one knows the size of the problem. No one has collected and compiled all the information in the public domain on this topic.”

In the new analysis, researchers combed through hundreds of reports on food fraud contained in the first known public database on food fraud. The database includes 1,305 records for food fraud. The records were culled from 660 academic studies and media reports. The U.S. Pharmacopeial Convention (USP), a nonprofit scientific organization, created the database. (Click here to see the database.)

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.

Food fraudsters often are out to make a buck, replacing an expensive material with a cheaper substitute, researchers note. One example they cite: the partial substitution of olive oil with hazelnut oil.

But the substitution also can unleash a health issue – like the adulteration of pet food in 2007 and infant formula and powdered milk in 2008 with the potentially hazardous chemical melamine.

“Food fraud and economically motivated adulteration have not received the warranted attention given the potential danger they present,” one of the researchers, John Spink of Michigan State University, says in a news release. (Click here to see the news release.) “This database is a critical step in protecting consumers.”

We’ve known the “extra virgin” olive oil on the supermarket shelf often isn’t the real thing. But this new report concludes olive oil is among the food items most likely to be a fake.

A U.S.-Australian study last year suggested that “most” top-selling European “extra virgin” oils sold in California supermarkets “regularly” fail to meet international standards for extra virgin. Extra virgin olive oil is the top grade, delivering the best taste and the full health benefits of olive oil. It also commands the highest price. (Click here to read the study.)

The researchers found that nearly three-quarters of the top five imported brands failed to pass “blind” taste tests conducted by two panels of professional tasters.

Writer 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. (Click here to read a blog post about the book.)

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).

Your friends at California Olive Ranch