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New Highs in Olive Oil Pricing Create Conditions for Theft and Adulteration
A recent New York Times article by Santul Nerkar published in October 2023 reported new heights in olive oil pricing, soaring to record levels, more than doubling in the past year, and 3 times higher than before the pandemic.
These stunning increases are being felt everywhere - not just on the grocery or specialty store shelves, where consumers are seeing increases of about 20 to 30 percent compared to last year. According to the article, this inflation is informing prices for many small and local restaurants that serve pizza, pasta, and community favourite dishes.
There are a few reasons for the dramatic increases, such as rising costs in production and supply chain pressures. But the biggest impact comes from the drought in Southern Europe last year, where olive oil production declined by 40 percent. Continued dry weather means that the harvest will not rebound quickly.
High prices tempt thieves and forgers
Such price increases mean that the value of oil increases as a commodity. Indeed, inventories of olive oil worth hundreds of thousands of euros were stolen from farms and producers in Spain, Greece, and Italy last year.
Olive oil thefts occur when criminal organizations break into mills at night to steal olive oil from storage tanks. Thefts can also happen in the groves, with thieves stealing already harvested olives awaiting transport to the mills. Trucks transporting oil are now subject to increased checking: drivers need to have the appropriate documentation indicating the origin of the olives. When authorities intercept stolen oil, they attempt to return it to the rightful owner. If thieves get away with their crimes, origins are sometimes disguised through fraudulent labelling.
To lure customers hoping for more affordable oil prices, food fraudsters can put adulterated oil on the market. Adulteration can take many forms, such as diluting extra virgin olive oil with lower grade oils, adding vegetable or seed oils while labeling it as pure olive oil, or using chemical coloring agents to mimic the color of pure olive oil.
How can oils be authenticated?
Producers and brand owners of oils have an interest in ensuring their oils are the quality and type claimed on the label (e.g., "extra virgin"). Enhanced authenticity testing can help them provide assurance and validation that what’s on the label matches what’s in the bottle.