Misinformation: Can you trust olive oil labels?
Honesty is the always best policy.
When we talk about olive oil ‘transparency’ we don’t mean how much light passes through your olive oil when you hold it up to the window. We’re talking about something altogether different... misleading marketing in the world of olive oils.
Misleading marketing or inaccurate labelling is something that really upsets the La Española team. Not only because it is dishonest, but it works to undermine the reputation of one of our oldest industries - an industry whose tradition and heritage we are very proud to be a part of. And let’s not forget the impact misleading marketing has on you, dear olive oil lover! You are the one who may well be tricked into purchasing inferior produce.
So, what can we do about it? Well, first of all, we believe in addressing the issue head on and understanding the facts. Let’s arm ourselves with knowledge.
Why raise the issue of transparency now?
We mention this now because of a recently resurfaced report from the Directorate General for Competition, Consumer Affairs and Fraud Control (DGCCRF) in France. You may have seen some of the coverage, highlighting that ‘Half of French Olive Oil is Fake’ or that ‘Olive Oil Labels are lying to you’. While these headlines are a little sensationalist, there is some truth to the claims. As the French fraud detection office, DGCCRF is in charge of clamping down on fraud in consumer products and therefore we’re inclined to look beyond the headlines and pay close attention to the original and official data.
What did they discover about olive oil?
The DGCCRF report shows that of 139 olive oil samples tested in the 2016 study, only 25.5% matched their marketing messages. Amazingly, almost half of the tested olive oils sold in France were not as described on their labels. Many of the olive oils tested showed chemical signatures of added vegetable oil, sunflower oil, rapeseed oil, and yet were claiming to be Extra Virgin or Organic. In some of the most serious cases the presence of sunflower oil was as high as 50%.
If you are wondering what the legal limits are, and how olive oil brands are expected and permitted to display information on their labels, here are the definitions that the DGCCRF were using:
Extra Virgin Olive Oil: “Superior category olive oil obtained directly from olives and only by mechanical processes.”
Virgin Olive Oil: "Olive oil obtained directly from olives and only by mechanical processes."
Olive Oil composed of refined olive oils and virgin olive oils: "Oil containing exclusively olive oils which have undergone a refining treatment and oils obtained directly from olives."
Olive-pomace Oil: “Oil containing exclusively oils obtained by processing the product obtained after extraction of olive oil and oils obtained directly from olives”, or “Oil containing exclusively oils obtained by processing olive-pomace and oils obtained directly from olives.”
Unfortunately, and despite such clear definitions, there are still many products bending, and completely breaking the rules.
What happened next?
The DGCCRF investigators then reviewed 286 establishments in the olive oil sector, from distributors and wholesalers and traders, to mills and manufacturers and markets - online and offline. It turned out that 42% of the establishments presented anomalies. This number increased to a shocking 59% for websites and online trade.
Among the samples taken, almost four in every ten were of French origin. The others came from Mediterranean countries, the world's main producers. It was found that the “rate of non-compliance” was higher when the “indication of the origin is not clear on the label”.
What actions were taken?
As mentioned, most of the shortcomings observed by the DGCCRF investigators concerned the way they were represented in the packaging. Essentially, the contents did not reflect that which was stated on the bottle.
Of the 286 establishments investigated by the DGCCRF, 71 were formally warned for non-compliant labelling, 39 were handed injunctions for not conforming to labeling laws, and 17 were given legal warnings, mainly for labelling faults.
It was concluded that "the rate of non-compliance has remained at a very high level in the olive oil sector for several years" and therefore the clear communication of the origin of extra virgin and virgin olive oils that is imposed by regulations remained "fully justified".
Where does this leave us?
There is already so much misinformation and fake news staining the olive oil industry, from smoke point toxins to the impacts on birdlife. Nobody wants to further muddy the waters with questionable origins or inauthentic blends. Especially when now, more than ever before, consumers are seeking total transparency when it comes to their food.
If you're struggling to find the truth about olive oils, then we appreciate your struggle. You want to know where it comes from, exactly what's in it.
The sad news is that one investigation is unlikely to suffice in clearing up every issue, but we remain hopeful that the wider industry joins Acesur and La Española in taking steps towards transparency. After all, it is the responsibility of the ‘establishments’ mentioned above - the producers and distributors - to ensure that the integrity of the industry is preserved. You shouldn't have to worry about whether to trust the label.
Oliography: La Española’s promise
For years now, La Española have used our Oliography platform to provide a ‘tree-to-table’ tracking option to those who enjoy our Extra Virgin Olive Oils. The free online tool has allowed thousands of you to quickly and comprehensively discover the whole journey of your extra virgin olive oil - from farming and milling to bottling and shipping.
Recognising the importance of this insight, La Española is proud to announce a revision of the Oliography platform. The revised online tool, due in Spring 2021, represents our ongoing commitment to complete transparency and customer satisfaction, and is set to make the experience of discovering the origins of your bottle even better.
We can’t say much more for now other than ‘watch this space’ and, please, keep caring about where your olive oil comes from.