The food marketplace has come a long way in the past century. Before Upton Sinclair wrote “The Jungle,” consumers used to unknowingly eat rats and human body parts in their ground beef. Today, consumers assume they can walk into a grocery store and buy that is both safe and properly labeled. But this assumption is frequently wrong--NCL recently discovered that to be the case with many brands of "extra virgin olive oil."
The National Consumers League has advocated for consumer rights since 1899, long before Sinclair’s famous novel, exposing green beans dyed green at the 1904 World’s Fair. In the past decade, the League has investigated the term “fresh” used on canned tomatoes, tested bottles labeled “100% real lemon juice” which proved to be far short of 100% lemon juice and brought lawsuits against several bakeries and national restaurant chains for using misleading labeling, suggesting their white bread products were whole grain. With word of rampant olive oil mislabeling on the rise, as reflected in another book, Tom Mueller's Extra Virginity: The Sublime and Scandalous World of Olive Oil, NCL staff decided to go shopping and investigate what exactly a consumer might get when he or she takes home “extra virgin” olive oil.
NCL purchased 11 different varieties of olive oil, all labeled extra virgin, each bought in January 2015, from four major Washington, DC area retailers (Whole Foods Market, Trader Joe’s, Safeway, and Giant). One bottle of each product was tested, so this was not meant to be a "study" or a "buyer's guide," but rather off-the-shelf testing as to what a consumer might buy within a year. This was an independent sampling, which NCL paid out-of-pocket, that included a battery of chemical and sensory tests that are not inexpensive. Bottles were selected from the back of lower shelves to ensure they were not damaged by exposure to natural or artificial lighting. U.S. and European brands and oils were tested, including private label oils. NCL did not test all brands that a consumer might buy.
Of the 11 products tested, six failed to meet extra virgin olive oil standards as set by the International Olive Council (IOC). Five were found to be extra virgin olive oils. These are:
- California Olive Ranch “Extra Virgin Olive Oil” – Classified as extra virgin.
- Colavita “Extra Virgin Olive Oil” – Classified as extra virgin.
- Trader Joe’s “ Extra Virgin California Estate Olive Oil” – Classified as extra virgin.
- Trader Joe’s “100% Italian Organic Extra Virgin Olive Oil” – Classified as extra virgin.
- Lucini “Premium Select Extra Virgin Olive Oil” – Classified as extra virgin.
The testing NCL commissioned was conducted by the Australian Olive Research Laboratory. There are no laboratories in the United States fully accredited by IOC for chemical and sensory testing, so the bottles were shipped overseas to the fully accredited laboratory in Australia.
Although NCL’s sampling set of brands differed, the findings from our testing appeared to be similar to those from testing conducted by Consumer Reports and UC Davis where more than 50% approximately in some way failed to meet "extra virgin" standards. Many of the companies that failed NCL’s testing have had products fail other authenticity tests, so why haven’t they cleaned up their products, or haven't taken steps to ensure that the oil labeled as "extra virgin" reaches consumers' hands as extra virgin? Several brands in all of this testing were able to do so.
Failing to make the cut
Mislabeled olive oil can have many explanations. First, producers may be bottling olive oil that was never extra virgin to begin with and attempting to pass it off as extra virgin. This result could be the product of using refined olive oil (made with heat or chemicals that can't be used to make extra virgin), old oils or oils made from rotten olives, or even mixing in seed oils. Extra virgin olive oil is actually a "fruit juice" without defects of older or rancid oils, meaning that to be extra virgin it needs to be freshly squeezed quickly after harvesting from good olives. Even the best extra virgin will degrade and become rancid over time or by exposure to light or extreme heat. The U.S. has voluntary standards for classifying olive oil and virtually no governmental authenticity testing, making it a prime target for producers to pass off their poorer oils in the US.
The second explanation is perhaps that producers are careless or worse about setting "best by" dates, establishing these dates for far longer than the actual life of the extra virgin oil, or the oil doesn’t hold up to the time it takes for shipping and retail shelf life before it reaches the consumers' hands. Some producers who have failed other extra virgin olive oil testing have stood up for their product and corrected the problems that lead to consumers purchasing mislabeled oils. Other producers have ignored testing, fail results or have blamed "transit issues," and continue to provide consumers with mislabeled product. The producer's name is on the bottle, it should ultimately be the producer's responsibility to make sure that the oil is correctly labeled extra virgin, and has a good chance of reaching the consumers' hands in that condition. Some producers seem able to achieve this result, so what is stopping others from doing the same?
In addition to conducting testing of 11 bottles of olive oil, NCL intends to file a consumer complaint to FDA, urging the agency to take action on what appears to be rampant olive oil mislabeling in the US. The FDA itself issued a qualified health claim stating that olive oil offers important health benefits when used to replace foods high in saturated fat as long as overall calories are not increased. Health benefits like these are found mainly in the extra virgin grade. Consumers are deprived of these benefits for which they pay a premium when they purchase mislabeled extra virgin olive oil.
Call for tougher regulations
While NCL applauds the producers of the brands whose oils tested as extra virgin off the shelf, something must be done to hold olive oil companies accountable. For starters, the United States could adopt mandatory federal labeling, grading and testing standards and methodologies. California could be a model for this, where it recently approved for its larger producers more stringent testing parameters and methodologies than current standards often employed. While California's stricter standards are welcome, it supplies only about 2 percent of America’s total olive oil needs. Federal standards similar to those which California enacted would be the first step in guaranteeing that consumers are getting what they pay for when it comes to olive oil.
What can consumers do?
For consumers, buying extra virgin olive oil with confidence in the United States is a challenge. With the present lack of off-the-shelf testing and enforcement of US standards, it is difficult for consumers to know the real from the not so extra virgin.
According to NCL, consumers should:
- Choose brands that consistently pass testing. Research prior testing and articles on authenticity, determine which producers are transparent in their processing, and judge for themselves which oils work well with their food and cooking and which don't.
- Check for “best by” dates, or – even better – harvest dates.
- Avoid buying oils in clear glass bottles or from the top shelf, which could be more likely to be degraded. But, warned the NCL, even that is not foolproof, and buying oil in tins or dark bottles does not mean that there is extra virgin oil in there.
- Remember that the USDA Organic label is also no indication of authenticity, and the fact that an oil is from Italy or another producing country is likewise not a good indicator.
Retailers, particularly the larger retailers, could educate themselves about the latest authenticity issues and the proper testing that can detect mislabeled oil and institute their own testing protocols. If the appropriate tests are employed, producers and suppliers will have a strong incentive to rectify the problems that several tests, including NCL's, have brought to light.