What sits on the grocery shelf is often not what it seems — especially regarding olive oil, honey, fish and wine. The National Center for Food Protection and Defense estimates that Americans pay $10 billion to $15 billion annually for fake food — often due to product laundering, dilution and intentionally false labeling.
Honey laundering has gained a good deal of merited press coverage the last few years, with Chinese honey scammers costing the U.S. honey industry billions in profit, but the U.S. olive oil industry similarly has been plagued by counterfeiters and adulteration.
Despite Americans being the third largest group of olive oil consumers in the world, the U.S. domestic olive oil industry only produces approximately 2 million gallons of olive oil each year — just 2 percent of the U.S. market. Olive oil imports, bolstered by “high foreign tariffs, lavish European subsidies and persistent labeling fraud all complicate efforts to build the domestic U.S. olive oil industry,” reports the Seattle Times.
In 2012, UC Davis tested 21 olive oil brands, including 15 marked as “extra virgin.” Nine of the samples failed USDA sensory standards for “extra virgin.” In addition, two of the overall 21 samples had been mixed with canola oil. Numerous studies have shown similar or even worse results.
In 2012, freelance journalist Tom Meuller testified about olive oil fraud before the United States International Trade Commission: “Clear laws exist on olive oil quality, adulteration, false advertising, food labeling and so forth. But nobody is enforcing these laws. Not the FDA. Not the state health departments. Not one district attorney. Nobody.”
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Meuller called olives California’s next “homerun” crop: “The U.S. oil market is valued at $1.5 billion, with 10 percent growth per year.”
With billions in profit at stake, California olive oil producers are frustrated with the fraud battle and lack of a level playing field. As with honey producers, U.S. domestic olive oil producers have been failed by a lack of regulation enforcement and action. UC Davis Olive Center Executive Director Dan Flynn, testifying before the Trade Commission, said legislation already marks the bounds of authenticity and quality, "So the question really isn't where is the line drawn. The question is who's enforcing the line, and who's holding the line?"
Flynn is spot-on with his testimony. Whether it’s fish, wine, honey or olive oil, the regulatory line must be held and enforcement applied.
A look across the Atlantic at Europe’s horsemeat scandal shows how quickly the food industry can unravel. The 2013 horsemeat revelations will come toe-tagged with a multi-billion dollar bill for the EU. Food industry executives have flung blame across country borders, factory owners have shifted guilt to shady middlemen, and politicians have consigned culpability to everyone but themselves. What started out as a couple of horsemeat burgers at Burger King quickly spread to spaghetti bolognese and then metastasized into equine meatballs and donkey meat lasagna. When burro meat makes it into TV dinners — the system is broken for all to see.
U.S. food regulations and legislation exist for the protection of the American consumer and producer — but are meaningless when unenforced. As Flynn asked, “…who’s holding the line?”