Revirginizing extravirgin oil.

by prof. Luigi Campanella, Past President of SCI (Italian Chemical Society)

New York Times accuses: italian extravirgin oil is adulterated and mixed with North African oil.
15 comic strips on italian production of extra virgin oil show Italy as a hangout of  crooks, who, protected by political power, import offshore oil and adulterate and mix it with italian one with the aim to illegally sell it as Made in Italy. I must put the record straight on a number of facts. Things are not exactly so.

(note: see here and here for some detailed criticism on the NYT paper and here for the implicit criticsm to Carabinieri)

UE has intensified each effort for the olive oil revival. In fact UE is the main producer and consumer of oilve oil, because UE produces 73% e consumes 66% of world olive oil. To maintain and corroborate this supremacy on world market the plain action of UE Commission envisions 6 goals:

1.  quality control;
2.  sector rectructuring;
3.  reorganizing supply chain;
4.  promoting;
5.  International olive Oil Council (Coi);
6.  international competition

And so the main actions will be:

1. quality and quality control, through measures able to stimulate the image of european olive oil defending and bettter informing the consumer;
2. improving supply chain, through all the possibilities given by CAP (Common Agricultural Policy) and the mobilisation of all its actors.

The most important point is to attain a better controls on the checking of oils chemical, organoleptic and genuineness criteria.
About Italy olive extra-virgin oil is one of the excellence product of our country, but also the one with the highest risk of frauds and adulteration.
The adulteration may happen in different and complex ways.The simplest one is to import oils from Spain, Greece or Tunisis, owing to their low cost, to mix it with low quantities of italian oil. More complex is deodorizing oil eliminating noxious smells, due to bad storage of olives, gathered for a long time under the Sun or accumulated in truck coffers, before to be squeezed.  In those conditions alkyl esters are formed, which modify both, chemistry and flavour of oil.
Following a recent report of EURISPES, the surveillance plan activated in Italy to check oil on all italian territory, organized by “Ispettorato Centrale della Tutela della Qualità e Repressione Frodi dei Prodotti Agroalimentari” (ICQRF), revealed an alarming result: 49% of 102 examined samples, was “non-compliant” with the value of 30 mg/Kg di alkyl esters, considered as the maximum value compatible with a good quality extra virgin oil. It has to be noted that this value, fixed by italian law is considerably lower than european limit (75 mg/kg).

However italian law does not inflict sanctions to oils with a quantity of alkyl-esters higher than 30 mg/Kg, nor it precludes to label it as “made in Italy”. After 2012 law allows to indicate an italian oil with alkyl ester value between 30 and 75 mg/kg. Recently International Oil Council (COI) approved a modification to alkyl ester maximum values, which should be applied gradually but with very restrictive effects with respect to the product designation.

First of all only the rate of ethyl esters, due exactly to a bad storage of olives, will be indicated and so from this year the maximum allowed value will be 40 mg/kg for ethyl ester and until 35 from 2014/2015 product ; finally in the following year the limit will arrive to 30 mg/kg.

International Oil Council continues to press its concern for a very stringent limit, so that oil producers cannot reduce the quality, gambling with the price. To this aim there is an active scientific research to develop chemical and sensorial methods to precisely individuate not-compliant samples.

Certainly there is a problem of using “made in Italy” brand for low quality oils imported from Spain, Greece or Tunisia. But, as we have shown, Italy is actively opposing to smuggling and to adulteration, which both damage the consumer.

It is not an easy struggle, but Italy is  fighting this struggle and has not relaxed its vigilance. Certainly there are producers cheating who add beta-carothene and chlorophyll, BUT not under unresponsiveness of italian institutions. There is not an italian concern BUT a concern with specific producers, which may be honest or not, as in all the World.


*alkyl esters are methyl and ethyl esters of fatty acids, which form from olive oil; they come from esterification of free fatty acids with methyl alcool, which comes from hydrolysis of pectines of olive by the effect of enzymes named pectin-methyl-esterase and from ethyl alcool, which comes from fermentation of sugars naturally present in olives.

These reactions happen essentially when olives, stored for long intervals, after the olives gathering and before the only mechanic olive oil extraction and so high concentrations of those esters reveal that oil comes from a long transportation. If their concentration is obliged to be very low, then the life of cheating producers is much more difficult.


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