The world’s olive crisis is hitting supply chains hard and fraud is rampant.
First it was the disease Xylella fastidiosa, which decimated olive groves across parts of Europe. Then came a drought in key growing areas of Europe. Production is down, and crime is up.
Olive oil is one of the most fraud-affected food products on earth, with reports dating back to the first century. The ancient historian Aelius Galenus described how merchants would dilute expensive olive oils with cheaper ingredients to increase their profits. A fifth-century Roman cookbook describes how to make cheap Spanish oil resemble expensive Italian oil by adding minced herbs and roots.
Since I began collecting food fraud stories in 2015, olive oil adulteration and misrepresentation have featured often, but in the past few months, the number of incidents has increased noticeably. And these days, it’s not just oil, other olive products are also at risk of food fraud.
I first started collecting information about threats to olive oil supplies in 2016, writing that olive growers were having trouble with pests and diseases, including Xylella fastidiosa, in Italy, Greece and Spain. In 2016, experts were predicting price rises for olives and olive oils in Europe, the United Kingdom and America because of risks to harvests from the disease.
One area hit hard by the disease was the Italian region of Puglia, which used to produce 50 percent of Italy’s olive oil. Xylella fastidiosa appeared in the region in 2013, and 21 million trees were lost to it within a few years.
Less high-quality Italian olive oil meant more motivation for fraud, and the criminals responded.
In 2017, a survey of more than three hundred thousand litres of olive oil, conducted over two years in Brazil found 64% of 279 samples were substandard, with some products containing 85% soybean oil.
Since then, the number of food fraud incidents for olive oil appears to have grown, with a startingly high number this year. Among the food fraud reports that I have seen and collected for the Trello-hosted Food Fraud Risk Information Database and The Rotten Apple, this year’s tally stands at more than triple the ‘usual’ annual count.
From 2015 to 2021 there were zero to four reports of olive oil fraud in international media per year. In 2022, that number climbed to six. This year I have counted fifteen.
It’s worth noting that this tally is indicative at best because it only captures incidents and survey results which are reported by mainstream media outlets or scientific journals AND discovered by me and my software during my searches for food fraud intelligence.
Olive fraud in 2023
Olives are becoming so expensive and scarce that criminals are chainsawing off fruit-laden branches of olive trees, and even taking whole olive trees from ochards by night in Europe. Some growers are even microchipping their trees in response to the thefts.
Last month, Bloomberg reported that European retail prices have doubled in the past year, and that EU exports of olive oil are expected to be lower by 10 percent.
In 2023 I have recorded a total of fifteen incidents and survey results from countries including Spain, Canada, Italy, Greece, Morroco, Brazil and Portugal. The fraud types included clandestine manufacture, marketing irregularities, theft of oil, theft of olives, labelling irregularities, blending with undeclared oils and mislabelling of the grade of oil.
In October I warned that due to the shortage of olives in Europe, non-European-grown oils could be fraudulently misrepresented as European oils.
Today’s food fraud news contains warnings about Moroccan olive oils, which are now subject to export restrictions to protect domestic supplies, after annual production dropped to less than half of 2021 levels following two years of drought in the country.
On the other side of the world, Brazillian authorities are closing down clandestine manufacturing sites, while Spanish law enforcement agencies have undertaken 300 different operations in olive growing areas, stopping vehicles full of stolen fruit, raiding oil mills and arresting mill operators who are processing stolen fruit. In Greece, the government is warning consumers of increased fraud risks and recommending they only buy their oil from reputable vendors.
Takeaways for food professionals
- purchasing from reputable vendors and authorised stockists – avoid online stores, markets, street vendors, small independent outlets and anonymous sellers which are more likely to sell counterfeits and products from unauthorised or grey market sources;
- purchasing premium brands, which are more likely to tightly control their supply chains;
- considering sourcing oil from non-European growing regions, which may be less affected by scarcity and price increases;
- paying attention to the taste and aroma of the oil and informing the vendor of any defects.
In short: 🍏 Olive oil has been vulnerable to food fraud since the beginning of recorded history 🍏 Experts have been warning of impending supply problems and price rises for olive oil since 2016 🍏 Tree diseases have decimated harvests in many major olive growing regions, and drought is also having a severe impact 🍏 Prices have increased significantly, for both olives and olive oil 🍏 Fraud activities in olives and olive oil appear significantly more numerous in 2023 compared to past years 🍏
Mueller, T. (2007). Italy’s Great Olive-Oil Scam. The New Yorker. Available at: https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2007/08/13/slippery-business
Ministério da Agricultura e Pecuária. (n.d.). Inspeção do Ministério da Agricultura identifica 45 marcas de azeite fraudados. Available at: https://www.gov.br/agricultura/pt-br/assuntos/noticias/mapa-identifica-45-marcas-de-azeite-fraudados
Olive Oil Times. (2022). Reimagining the Xylella-Devastated Landscape of Southern Puglia. [online] Available at: https://www.oliveoiltimes.com/business/reimagining-the-xylella-devastated-landscape-of-southern-puglia/114128
Petroni, A. (n.d.). The plan to save Italy’s dying olive trees with dogs. [online] www.bbc.com. Available at: https://www.bbc.com/future/article/20230111-the-super-sniffer-dogs-saving-italys-dying-olive-trees.
Food Fraud Advisors Food Fraud Risk Information Database: Olive Oil. Available at: https://trello.com/c/GHwJnQGp/369-olive-oil
This post originally appeared in The Rotten Apple.