The quest to buy quality olive oil may be much more challenging than you might think. The European Union ("EU") produces about three-quarters of the world's olive oil a year, about 2.3 million tons. It's the job of the International Olive Council (IOC), an intergovernmental organization of 16 member states based in Madrid, Spain to promote olive oil around the world. The IOC tracks production, defines quality standards, and monitors authenticity. More than 98 per cent of the world's olives are grown in IOC member nations.
While the IOC officially governs 95 per cent of international production and holds great influence over the rest, the United States is not a member of the IOC, and the US Department of Agriculture does not legally recognize the IOC classifications (such as "extra-virgin olive oil"), but has established standards that closely parallel the IOC standards.
Olive oil is classified by how it was produced, by its chemistry, and by its flavor. Adulterated olive oil has become the biggest source of agricultural fraud problems in the EU and a source of confusion for US consumers. Olive oils can be mixed with sunflower, canola or colza oil, chemically deodorized and then flavored. While less than 10% of world olive oil production meets the criteria for labeling as "extra-virgin," it has been estimated that up to 50% of retail oil is labeled "extra-virgin." Therefore, the labels on many bottles of olive oil are meaningless -- or just plain lies.
IOC Extra-virgin Olive - is of higher quality, and among other things, it contains no more than 0.8% free acidity, is judged to have a superior taste, having some fruitiness and no defined sensory defects.
IOC Virgin Olive Oil - Comes from virgin oil production only, but is of slightly lower quality, with free acidity of up to 1.5%, and is judged to have a good taste.
IOC Refined Olive Oil is the olive oil obtained from virgin olive oils by refining methods that do not lead to alterations in the initial glyceridic structure. It has a free acidity, expressed as oleic acid, of not more than 0.3 grams per 100 grams (0.3%) and its other characteristics correspond to those fixed for this category in this standard.
IOC Olive Pomace Oil is refined pomace olive oil often blended with some virgin oil. It is fit for consumption, but may not be described simply as olive oil. It has a more neutral flavor than pure or virgin olive oil, making it unfashionable among connoisseurs; however, it has the same fat composition as regular olive oil, giving it the same health benefits. It also has a high smoke point, and thus is widely used in restaurants as well as home cooking in some countries.
On October 25, 2011 the United States adopted new olive oil standards, a revision of those that have been in place since 1948, which affect importers and domestic growers and producers by ensuring conformity with the benchmarks commonly accepted in the U.S. and abroad.
U.S. Extra Virgin Olive Oil - oil with excellent flavor and odor and free fatty acid content of not more than 0.8%.
U.S. Virgin Olive Oil - oil with reasonably good flavor and odor and free fatty acid content of not more than 2%.
U.S. Virgin Olive Oil Not Fit For Human Consumption Without Further Processing - a virgin (mechanically-extracted) olive oil of poor flavor and odor, equivalent to the IOC's lampante oil.
U.S. Olive Oil is an oil mix of both virgin and refined oils.
U.S. Refined Olive Oil - oil made from refined oils with some restrictions on the processing.
US Customs regulations on "country of origin" state that if a non-origin nation is shown on the label, then the real origin must be shown on the same side of the label and in comparable size letters so as not to mislead the consumer. Yet, most major US brands continue to put "imported from Italy" on the front label in large letters and other origins on the back in very small print. These products are a mixture of olive oil from more than one nation and it is not clear what percentage of the olive oil is really of Italian origin. This practice makes it difficult for high quality, lower cost producers outside of Italy to enter the US market, and for genuine Italian producers to compete.
How deceptive can it get? In 1993, the FDA ordered a recall of Rubino U.S.A. Inc. olive oils which were nothing more than canola oil. In 2010 University of California at Davis' Olive Center purchased three bottles each of 14 imported olive oils and five California "extra virgin" oils at retail stores. Sixty-nine percent of the imported olive oils and 10% of the California oils failed to meet the IOC/USDA taste standards for extra-virgin olive oil.
There is a persistent mistaken belief that when genuine olive oil (or, in some versions, extra virgin olive oil specifically) is refrigerated, it will solidify or become much more viscous. The "Fridge Test" is not reliable for determining oil purity or quality. How can you detect counterfeit olive oil? Absent expensive lab testing -- we don't know.
"Extra Virgin Olive Oil" is clearly displayed on both the front and back of this bottle; a classification with different IOC and USDA standards.
The front label reads "Imported from Italy."
Looking at the back label of the bottle above, we see that it is "Imported from Italy" but "Contains Extra Virgin Olive Oil from Tunisia, Spain, Greece and Italy."
In what proportions, we don't know.
This bottle simply says "Extra Virgin Olive Oil" and "Italy."
Absent any other labeling or contents description on the bottle - the consumer has no indication of what really is in this bottle; a questionable food product purchase.
Olive oil may come from Italy, Spain, Morocco or Tunisa but, be adulterated with with sunflower, canola or colza oil, chemically deodorized and then flavored.
Do you really know what you are buying?