Just as wine lovers expect complexity in an outstanding vintage, lovers of olive oil want purity in their favorite extra virgin. High-end olive oil is very expensive to produce, and fraud is a growing problem. When Connecticut officials discovered that some imported olive oil was really a cheap knockoff, they leaped into action.
You can’t walk down the Italian food isle in most New England supermarkets without seeing Luciano Sclafani imported products. "Canned pealed tomatoes, San Marzano tomatoes, regular tomatoes and pasta products..and the item that’s closest to my heart is the Sclafani olive oil."
Sclafani describes olive oil as “...one of mankind’s purest foods. In fact we have one product called the Frantoio Unfiltered from Sicily and this I actually take a half a shot glass every morning to ingest. It keeps my hair..being a young man of 62..its not white like my compatriots"
A 1 liter bottle of Frantoio extra virgin sells for $25, so when he saw a competitor’s 3 liter tin selling for $9.99, Sclafani sensed trouble. He went straight to the authorities. Connecticut Department of Consumer Protection Commissioner Jerry Farrell ordered food inspectors to test the suspicious product. "We came across cans of olive oil that were for sale in Connecticut that had, after testing, these other oils in there..peanut oil, soy oil, hazelnut oil"
In April 2007, FDA investigators and US Marshals seized more than 10,000 cases of olive oil from storage facilities in New York and New Jersey. It turned out that tins labeled as extra virgin were mostly soybean oil mixed with low grade olive-pomace oil. The seizures had an estimated retail value of more than $700,000. Amusing as it may sound, Commissioner Farrell says there’s a serious side to the story. "We saw it as not only that the consumer was being cheated, but their health was being put at risk by these oils being in there and it not being disclosed in any way."
In fact for people with serious food allergies, nut oils can be fatal, so something needed to be done. Connecticut is the first state to enact standards to protect the purity of olive oil. They mirror regulations set by the International Olive Council in Spain, and create legal definitions for “virgin”, “extra virgin” and “olive-pomace” oil. Wholesalers who don’t follow the standards face a fine.
At Romeo and Cesare’s market in New Haven, Romeo Simeone says the new standards also protect honest store owners. "Its very good because the people they no gotta be influenced for the price and they no give the quality."
New York, New Jersey and Rhode Island say they’re interested in setting state standards, but California’s next in line. It begins regulating the slippery olive oil industry in January.