Olive production in Italy was hard hit last year due to an early frost. The country’s olive production dropped by 57%. Both Greece and Portugal suffered a similar fate, along with pest issues, and saw their production drop by 35% and 15%, respectively. Pressures generated by shorter supplies with any food product have historically generated more cases of economically-motivated adulteration. This is often the case for spices, tea, vinegar, wine, and of course, olive oil. For fear of losing market share from forced higher retail prices, companies will sometimes commit food fraud in order to cut costs. However, in the case of olive oil, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency appears to have things under control.
Since June, 2018, many Canadians have noticed that retail prices for olive oil have gone up by over 40% in some cases. When olive oil gets more expensive to produce, processing companies may be tempted to adulterate their products by using palm oil, soya oil or even sunflower oil. The first cases of adulterated olive oil go back to the Roman Empire, so this isn’t a new issue. Even some well-known brands have been involved in cases of adulteration. It is quite easy to switch ingredients, as most consumers would probably not notice the difference in taste. Food fraud affects many food categories, but stakes are a little higher with olive oil, due to potential allergens in substitute ingredients.
In recent years, the CFIA has actually tested some products if it suspects them to be fraudulent. In 2013, 39% of random tests found adulterated olive oil. A total of 28 samples were collected across the country. That ratio went down to 10% in 2018, with the random testing of 20 samples. Obviously, these results do not mean cases of food fraud are actually down in Canada – far from it – but reports are encouraging, nonetheless. This may suggest that the industry is now fully aware that our federal regulator is checking and will find fraudulent products. Anything more than 0% is too high, but the situation appears to be improving. A study out of California a few years ago estimated that almost 69% of all olive oil imported to North America was fraudulent. Most fraudulent products in the study had been produced using chemicals, making them ineligible to be considered extra virgin. The recent numbers determined by the CFIA are nowhere near that high.
Food fraud remains one of the most significant challenges in the food industry. According to some estimates, the intentional adulteration, substitution or misrepresentation of food for financial gain costs the global food industry well over $70 billion. The practice lowers standards for all in the industry and makes conditions for compliant food companies more difficult. Worse, given that mislabelling is the ultimate outcome of food fraud, many consumers with health conditions are exposed to unwarranted risks from hidden ingredients.
With new technologies, a change in consumer expectations about food fraud, and regulators playing a more active role, fraudulent behavior is slowly becoming marginalized. Such an accomplishment should be celebrated, but much more needs to be done. Public awareness and education, as well as allowing consumers to report suspicious products should be encouraged. The most common cases of food fraud in Canada remain misrepresentation with organic and local products. A simple laboratory test only to identify foreign ingredients is not nearly enough.
It has been argued recently that blockchain technologies can help the food industry address food fraud. The concept has merit, but its case for market currency remains to be proven. Many grocers have embraced the approach while facing some resistance higher up the food supply chain. For blockchain technologies to work, all involved within the supply chain must comply.
In the mean time, for olive oil enthusiasts, vigilance is a virtue. Typically, 500 millilitres of good quality olive oil should cost 15 to 16 dollars to produce. Price points at retail for good olive oil should be higher than this. So, if you are looking at a bottle retailed at 10 dollars or less, just walk away.
Dr. Sylvain Charlebois is Dean of the Faculty of Management at Dalhousie University in Halifax. Also at Dalhousie, he is Professor in food distribution and policy in the Faculty of Agriculture. His current research interest lies in the broad area of food distribution, security and safety, and has published four books and many peer-reviewed journal articles in several publications. His research has been featured in a number of newspapers, including The Economist, the New York Times, the Boston Globe, the Wall Street Journal, Foreign Affairs, the Globe & Mail, the National Post and the Toronto Star. Follow him on twitter @scharleb.