Testing Olive Oil Authenticity

Notice was given in the April 28, 2010, Federal Register that on October 25, 2010, revised U.S. standards for grades of olive oil and olive-pomace oil will become effective, replacing the first edition of the U.S. grade standards, which have been in force since March 22, 1948.1

The new U.S. regulations will institute a testing regime comparable to the one used in Europe for the last 20 years. The acceptable characteristics of olive oil and the relevant methods for determining these were described in the original European Commission Regulation 2568/91. Now a European Union Regulation, 2568/91 has undergone a few minor amendments since its introduction in 1991 and sets out more than 20 analytical values for determining the relevant grade, quality, and authenticity of the olive oil under investigation.

A number of analytical tests can be used to detect whether cheaper oils have been used to dilute pure olive oil.

A number of analytical tests can be used to detect whether cheaper oils have been used to dilute pure olive oil.

Eight grades are defined between the poorest olive residue oil and premium extra virgin olive oil. If any characteristic of an oil lies outside the defined limits, the oil must either be reclassified as a different grade or rejected on quality or authenticity grounds.

Criminal Oil

In Europe, the pressure to develop this regulation came out of the recognition that there would always be suppliers attempting to market low-grade olive oil as a more expensive higher grade or to substitute a portion of the olive oil with cheaper oil such as rapeseed or sunflower. Even with the regulations in place, this temptation still exists, and there have been several high-profile arrests for olive oil adulteration, especially in Italy. In 2008, seven olive oil plants were impounded and some 40 people were arrested in Italy for offenses relating to olive oil adulteration.

Of course, the problem is not restricted to Europe. In June 2010, in the Ontario Court of Justice, LIF Foods Inc. was fined $50,000 for unlawfully importing and selling a quantity of their brand, Porta Villa, labeled as extra virgin olive oil; the oil was actually determined to contain approximately 50% sunflower oil. In 2009, in the Special Commercial Crimes Court in Durban, South Africa, Salvatore Pollizi, owner of the company Ital Distributors, pled guilty to selling fake virgin olive oil under the names of Antico Frantoio and Ulivo.1 The United States has also prosecuted people for similar offenses.

All such adulteration is reprehensible from a commercial perspective, of course, but one cannot underestimate the health risks. Europe, and Spain in particular, can still recall an infamous case from 1981 in which rapeseed oil adulterated with aniline and sold as olive oil in working-class neighborhoods of Madrid caused almost 700 deaths and up to 25,000 injuries.2

Madrid is now home to the International Olive Council (IOC), an intergovernmental organization created by the United Nations that represents the countries responsible for over 95% of the world’s olive oil production, most of which occurs in Italy, Greece, Portugal, and Spain. The IOC is responsible for administering the International Agreement on Olive Oil and Table Olives and for regulating international standards. The new regulation has been introduced largely to bring the U.S. industry in line with international standards. As a consequence, descriptions familiar to U.S. consumers, like “U.S. Fancy” or “U.S. Choice,” will soon be replaced by more internationally recognized terms, and new definitions for olive oil will now be introduced in the U.S.


Of course, a regulation can only go so far in resolving an issue of authenticity. The essential problem in authentication is setting parameters that accurately define the composition of pure, fresh oil. Any oil is a complex mixture of components. These include tri-, di-, and monoglycerides; free fatty acids; saturated, monounsaturated, polyunsaturated, and trans fatty acids; sterols; aliphatic and other alcohols; flavonoids; and a variety of other organic molecules. For oils extracted from the same species of plant, regional variations in climate and soil conditions may affect the levels of some of these components.

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