Consumer group finds 6 out of 11 extra virgin olive oil products mislabeled; calls for stricter oversight – National Consumers League
May 19, 2015
Contact: Carol McKay, NCL, 412-945-3242, firstname.lastname@example.org
Paul Miller, Australian Olive Association, +61 41-285-4974, email@example.com
Mary Flynn, Brown University, 401-793-4707, Mary_Flynn@brown.edu
Washington, DC— The National Consumers League (NCL) has released the testing results of national brands of extra virgin olive oil (EVOO) products, finding that – of 11 products sampled – six failed to meet EVOO standards when evaluated by a highly accredited Australian lab. In early January of this year, the consumer group purchased 11 different varieties of olive oil, all labeled extra virgin, from four major Washington area retailers (Whole Foods Market, Trader Joe’s, Safeway, and Giant). Of those 11 products, six failed to meet International Olive Council (IOC) standards required to be considered extra virgin quality; only five were found to be true extra virgin olive oils.
“One of NCL’s priorities is to assess whether the food in our supermarkets are accurately labeled,” said Sally Greenberg, NCL’s executive director. “The results of our olive oil testing reveal that, while consumers are buying and paying extra for olive oil labeled EVOO, too much of the olive oil bought off the shelf isn’t the real deal. It’s mislabeled, or it’s been degraded over the course of the shipping and storage process. When that happens, consumers are paying top dollar for that EVOO label without getting the enhanced health and taste benefits.”
Olive oils are classified based on their chemistry, flavor profile, and presence of defects, and are labeled (from best quality to worst quality) extra virgin, virgin, ordinary, and lampante. An olive oil found to have any defects cannot be classified as “extra virgin.” At the other end of the spectrum, lampante is a classification that the U.S. Department of Agriculture, along with other standard-setting authorities, uses to indicate that the oil is not fit for human consumption.
Shortly after purchase in January, NCL shipped the samples to the Australian Oil Research Laboratory (AORL), one of the world’s leading testing facilities accredited by the IOC and the American Oil Chemists’ Society. NCL commissioned AORL to comprehensively analyze the oils with a variety of tests, including sensory assessment (also known as the organoleptic assessment) in order to identify flavor profiles and defects in the oils.
The following five products were found to have no flavor defects and to be classified as extra virgin:
- California Olive Ranch “Extra Virgin Olive Oil”
- Colavita “Extra Virgin Olive Oil”
- Lucini “Premium Select Extra Virgin Olive Oil”
- Trader Joe’s “ Extra Virgin California Estate Olive Oil”
- Trader Joe’s “100% Italian Organic Extra Virgin Olive Oil”
Some of the brands purchased were available at multiple retailers, while others were sold under the retailer’s private label. Bottles were selected from the back of lower shelves to ensure they were not damaged by exposure to natural or artificial lighting.
“Based on my review of the data, both the organoleptic (sensory or taste testing) and chemical tests support the same conclusion, that only five of the 11 [products] samples tested were ‘extra virgin’ as represented on the label,” said Richard Cantrill, chief science officer and technical director of the American Oil Chemists’ Society (AOCS), a global network of oil scientists considered the leading fats and oils association in the world. “The testing authority for these NCL samples—Australian Oil Research Laboratories—holds full accreditation for both the sensory and chemical methods employed, and those methodologies are scientifically valid and referenced in different olive oil standards throughout the world.”
Several other authoritative sources have tested EVOO in the last several years and made similar findings. July 2010 the UC Davis Olive Center issued a report showing that 69 percent of imported olive oils labeled as “extra virgin” failed the IOC sensory standard – in other words, these oils were defective and failed to meet the international standard for extra virgin olive oil. In September 2012, Consumer Reports published results of its testing of EVOO-labeled samples and found only 9 of 23 met the EVOO standards. One piece of good news is that all the samples NCL tested were found to be 100 percent olive oil, and none were cut with refined oil or seed oil, which is a form of EVOO fraud. Several of the brands that failed to meet EVOO standards in NCL’s testing also failed when tested by these other entitles.
“Based on my experience and observations, I believe there is widespread mislabeling of extra virgin olive oil,” said Paul Miller, president of the Australian Olive Association. “In many cases, the packers of EVOO products may knowingly distribute older oils that may have been extra virgin at one point, but stand little chance of remaining extra virgin by the time the oil hits the grocery store shelves. In the worst cases the oil was probably nowhere near extra virgin quality when it was packed. The ‘best by’ dates can be inaccurate, leaving consumers with oil mislabeled as ‘extra virgin’ that is of poor quality, is not fresh or flavorful and lacks all the positive health effects of true extra virgin olive oil. In countries where the law on the books is enforced, such as Italy, Canada, Australia, and Germany, these problems are significantly reduced, but the United States currently is not one of those countries.”
American consumers often seek out extra virgin olive oil because of its health benefits. Research also indicates that oleocanthal, one of the phenolic compounds found in extra virgin olive oil, may offer disease-fighting properties.
“Extra virgin olive oils contain compounds called polyphenols, which are responsible for many of their purported health benefits. In general, the fresher the olive oil, the higher the polyphenol content,” said Mary Flynn, a leading olive oil researcher at Brown University. “As the oil ages or is exposed to heat, light or oxygen, the polyphenol content decreases. A number of studies have shown that extra virgin olive oils with higher polyphenol content are associated with greater health benefits. Oil classified as ‘ordinary,’ also known simply as ‘olive oil’ grades have virtually none of these benefits. ‘Lampante’ is Italian for ‘lamp oil,’ and is not fit for human consumption.”
“When consumers buy bottles labeled “extra virgin olive oil,” they expect that they will fully receive positive health effects and superior flavor. Our testing shows otherwise,” said NCL’s Greenberg. “More than half of the oils we tested off the shelf were inaccurately labeled.”
Some states are enacting stricter olive oil labeling and grading standards. California recently approved rules that include more precise requirements for testing for adulteration. While California’s stricter standards are welcome, the state supplies only 2 percent of America’s total olive oils.
“The U.S. needs stricter oversight and enforcement of EVOO labeling and standards,” said Greenberg. “Because neither the FDA nor the USDA has done effective spot testing and enforcement, consumers are left with little protection in this market. Retailers and the producers they buy from need to commit to cleaning up the market in America. If Italy, Canada, Australia, and Germany can work to clean up their EVOO industry, so can we. Consumers need to know that when they see ‘extra virgin olive oil’ on the product, they are actually getting what they paid for.”
“We have informed the six companies whose oils failed the tests for EVOO of the results and have declined to publish their names to give them an opportunity to address the situation that their oils are not reaching consumer shelves as represented, extra virgin, and to clean up their supply chains and/or manufacturing practices to meet standards applicable in the United States. If an oil is labeled as extra virgin on a US retail shelf, it should test as extra virgin under U.S. standards in off-the-shelf testing,” said Greenberg. “We will consider, in the next year, retesting the products, using the same consumer-experience-simulation methodology, and we hope and expect to see these results improve in the next round of testing.”
Advice for consumers
For consumers, buying extra virgin olive oil with confidence in the United States is a challenge, according to Greenberg. “With the present lack of off-the-shelf testing and enforcement of US standards, it is difficult for consumers to know the real from the not so extra virgin. Choosing brands that consistently pass testing is a good start.”
According to NCL, consumers should:
- Check for “best by” dates, or – even better – harvest dates.
- Avoid buying oils in clear glass bottles or from the top shelf, which could be more likely to be degraded. But, warned the NCL, even that is not foolproof, and buying oil in tins or dark bottles does not mean that there is extra virgin oil in there.
- Remember that the USDA Organic label is also no indication of authenticity, and the fact that an oil is from Italy or another producing country is likewise not a good indicator.
About NCL’s work in food mislabeling and fraud
NCL has long worked to combat food fraud throughout the organization’s 115-year history. For example, at the 1904 World’s Fair, NCL exhibited green beans that were dyed green. NCL’s more recent work investigating food labeling has included testing bottles labeled “100% real lemon juice” which proved to be far short of 100% lemon juice. Most recently, NCL brought lawsuits against several bakeries and national restaurant chains for using misleading labeling on their products that would lead reasonable consumers to believe they had a greater whole grain content than they in fact did.
About the National Consumers League
The National Consumers League, founded in 1899, is America’s pioneer consumer organization. Our mission is to protect and promote social and economic justice for consumers and workers in the United States and abroad. For more information, visit www.nclnet.org.