I am an importer and retailer of more brands of olive oil than I can count. I work at the Fairway Markets, a twelve-store-and-growing chain of specialty supermarkets in New York City, New York State, New Jersey and Connecticut. I have had great interest in and considerable experience with the subject of olive oil for many years now. There is nothing more important to me in my professional life.
Here’s a bit of what we at Fairway Markets actually know to be unassailable facts about olive oil:
- Tastes good, smells good, looks good, good for you, brings out wonderful flavors you didn’t know existed in all of your favorite foods.
- Can be cheap, can be expensive, and you almost always get what you have chosen to pay for.
- Comes from countries all around the Mediterranean as well as a few others like Australia, New Zealand, California, South Africa, Portugal, Mexico
- Is the result of the juice that comes from a variety of olives in different stages of ripeness often pressed at the same time.
- Is adversely affected by several factors including too much time having passed since its pressing; heat; light; air.
- There are low-quality olive oils and high-quality olive oils, and then there are a lot of olive oils that fall somewhere in-between.
- Just because an olive oil container’s label states EXTRA-VIRGIN OLIVE OIL, it is no guarantee of high quality.
- No single country or region within a country is where the world’s ‘best’ olive oil will be found.
Here’s what has become pop-anecdotal, but is actually patently FALSE about olive oil:
- All American food shops and supermarkets are selling adulterated olive oil.
- Much of the imported olive oil found in American food shops and supermarkets is fraudulently labeled EXTRA-VIRGIN.
- Dr. Oz’s television broadcast bulletin to his massive audience that if you want to be sure your olive oil is EXTRA-VIRGIN, all you have to do is put the container in the refrigerator, and if it congeals, it is truly EXTRA-VIRGIN
This hysteria is typical of the American consumer and the media that report hysterical phenomena. Here’s what’s really happening: The California olive oil industry is striving to capture a larger share of the market for olive oil. They have a trade group that has mobilized itself. It’s in this group’s interest to promote and hype the myth that imported olive oil is often/usually/always adulterated (with lampante olive oil, pomace olive oil, a non-olive seed oil) OR is oxidized beyond the legal proclamation of extra-virginity (a measure of acidity, i.e. staleness). Thus the California olive oil industry has as its mandate chosen to use an insidious tactic to achieve its goal of garnering a larger market share of this country’s consumption of olive oil. It has chosen to paint with the same brush the entire European olive oil industry along with the couple of crooks that have been caught with their hands in the olive oil jar. Smear? Slander? Libel? We shall see. This is an outrage that must be called out for what it is. But it appears no one but Fairway has guts and gravitas in sufficient quantities to have any effect .
The towering fact of the matter is that there are those of us who are obsessed with the goodness of olive oil. We are students of the substance, and we study hard, we pursue the truth, and we have done our homework. We travel across the world to groves and olive-pressing facilities on a regular and constant basis. We are intimately familiar with the people that own the groves and the pressing facilities, and we talk to them on a daily basis. We taste olive oils from far-flung locales daily, and with great attention and avid interest. We are hyper-critical, often to a fault. We frequently, at our own considerable expense, have olive oils chemically analyzed in fully licensed and legally bonded laboratories. We talk about olive oil, think about it, muse upon it, and bandy different olive oils about, much like baseball cards, sports fans and their favorite athletes.
There are crooks in every industry. There are supermarket chain buyers who know less than nothing about the olive oils they choose to stock in their stores. It is obvious that the olive oil crook who adulterates olive oil will target, capture and exploit the bottom-feeding supermarket chain buyer who will be attracted by the low price of the crook’s adulterated, though prominently EXTRA-VIRGIN-labeled olive oil. It seems to many of us that it should be a simple matter for the American consumer to discern the difference between a shop or market that has little or no regard for the best of things, and one that strives to offer nothing but. But if the Californians have their way no imported olive oil will be released by US Customs and the USFDA until it has been analyzed at great expense, held for extended periods by these bureaucracies, and subjected to ever more tariffs, handling charges and additional taxes, all of which is mandatory. The affect is clear: The most important ingredient in your food life is going to be a lot more expensive. California olive oil already is.
What to do? First, know that when you see someone or something pointing a finger at someone or something else, it is wisest to follow that pointing finger back to its source. Start there with your own analysis. Second, imagine for a moment the mindset that would compel an olive grove farmer and his miller to do something evil to their own olive oil; that they would willfully compromise all that their parents and grandparents had worked so hard to achieve. The cynics among you will respond that I am a naïf, that money changes everything. Well, maybe I am, and maybe it does.
But not for an olive grower. Not for an artisan miller. The innumerable olive oils I import and sell in my stores are the finest, purest, most romantic and near-perfect substance on earth. That anyone would suggest I am a party to fraudulent practice beggars credulity. I resent enormously what the California olive oil industry is foisting upon a gullible public, and I will not let them get away with it. After all, a tiny measure of common sense is called for here. A North American supermarket that has gotten caught selling adulterated olive oil is bound to exist. I just bet anybody with common sense can look at that supermarket and then look at a Fairway, and it will be obvious which outfit is selling the fake stuff and which outfit wouldn’t be caught dead with it. That a government bureaucracy has to barge in is just another step closer to insanity.