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WHY MANY PEOPLE BELIEVED THE BERTOLLI FAKE OLIVE OIL REPORT

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Let’s take a good look at the original 2010 UC Davis report that was widely misinterpreted and ended up creating a cottage industry of false and misleading claims about Bertolli olive oils.

Most of the articles headlined “14 Fake Olive Companies are Revealed Now” rely only on this single study and a single statistic from it to back up their claims about Bertolli, as well as damning a number of other brands from Europe and elsewhere in the world.

The UC Davis report stated that 69% of olive oils imported to the United States failed to meet IOC/USDA standards for extra virgin oil, based on a sensory test – taste and smell – and that 86% failed a chemical examination. It said all of the olive oils produced in California, except one, passed the tests with flying colors.

To non-experts, that certainly made it sound like the big brands were peddling adulterated olive oil under false claims about its purity.

But, if we look more carefully at the study, which is what many of the people posting about fake olive oil in their blogs neglected to do, we can see that several fundamental points were ignored.

WHAT YOU DIDN’T SEE IN THE FAKE OLIVE OIL BRANDS STUDY

First, the way the segment of the study conducted in Australia was handled was highly questionable. Here’s the part of the report indicating that the samples were sent to Australia via a basic, conventional FedEx shipment – hardly what we would call secure or scientific.

Australia analysis. “On November 12, 2010, the UC Davis olive oil research project team shipped 134 unopened bottles (18 samples of seven brands and eight samples at one brand) to the Australian Oils Research laboratory in Wagga Wagga, New South Wales. The samples were shipped by FedEx and were five days in transit.”

Secondly, we discovered that the study was largely funded by Californian olive oil producers and their own trade body, the COOC. Surely this suggests a lack of neutrality and independence in the research.
“We are grateful to Corto Olive, California Olive Ranch, and the California Olive Oil Council for their financial support of this research. We value the leadership of Dr. Richard Cantrill, technical director of the American Oil Chemists’ Society (AOCS); the advice of the AOCS Expert Panel on Olive Oil (particularly Bruce Golino, member of the board of directors of the California Olive Oil Council and Paul Miller, president of the Australian Olive Association) and the expertise of Leandro Ravetti, senior horticulturalist and olive specialist at Modern Olives in Australia.”
Despite these and other shortcomings, the UC Davis report has been cited ever since as the basis for claims that are demonstrably false or grossly misleading. This was the great hue and cry over “Bertolli olive oil fake”. Those citing it have done so inaccurately to paint a picture of an olive oil industry where fraud is allegedly commonplace.
An additional consequence of the report was the fact that Daniel Callahan, a high-profile lawyer with the firm Callaghan and Blaine, acting on behalf of California restaurateurs and chefs, was forced to withdraw a lawsuit intended to establish that the oils in question did not meet IOC/USDA standards.The suit failed because it turned out to be impossible to prove.

Here’s a direct statement from the firm’s James Callahan:

“Lead attorney Daniel Callahan said that he would not pursue the lawsuit that he had filed on behalf of a group of prominent California restaurateurs and chefs because additional testing conducted by his firm found widely divergent results. “The results are blatantly inconsistent,” said Callahan. “We would not be able to carry our own burden of proof or have consistency from our own experts.”

IS THE EXTRA VIRGIN OLIVE OIL STUDY FLAWED?

Yes, this study was flawed in multiple ways:

  1. The study was conducted using sensory tasting – in other words, taste and smell, which are subjective.
  2. Chemical testing could not confirm the negative sensory results.
  3. The study used a tiny sample size, which means that the study results are not statistically significant.

At most, this initial study suggested that further research was needed. And further research was conducted – by the IOC. Here’s their reaction to the UC Davis investigation:

“For its part, the IOC called the size of the sampling – 52 bottles and 19 brands – to be “not statistically significant.” The statement went on to say that the IOC conducts chemical tests on “some 200 samples of imported oils sold in the United States” each year and, according to IOC findings, anomalies are detected in less than 10% of the imported oils analyzed. Any irregularities are referred to the appropriate association for necessary action.”

In another response to the report, the North American Olive Oil Association, together with the IOC, spoke on behalf of all importers regarding the UC Davis report, saying the DAG/PPP methods “are not official chemical methods cited in international olive-oil-specific food or trade standards.”
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