British shoppers have been warned to beware of counterfeit olive oil – as criminal gangs exploit a disastrous Italian harvest by selling potentially dangerous bootleg bottles.
A senior Italian food fraud investigator told The Independent that he has already seen evidence that criminals are moving into olive oil production and distribution.
Consumers should be particularly wary of olive oil that appears “too cheap to be true”, experts said. Fake oil produced in unhygienic conditions could put Britons at increased risk of E.coli and salmonella.
The incentive for fraud has increased because the woeful olive harvest has left a shortage of the fruit required to make genuine oil – while the resulting rising price has increased the profits that can be made from selling fake bottles.
“Organised criminals are going into it rapidly. We estimate that there will be an increase in criminal interest in this field,” the Italian investigator said.
He said it was likely that some of the counterfeit product could end up in the UK, which is a big consumer of Italian olive oil. The Italian and British authorities are in discussions about how best to tackle the threat, he added.
“The criminals have international links and are able to shift this product overseas where other criminals will supply it. There are some networks that are able to supply Italian restaurants overseas, so there is a threat from that,” he said.
Olive oil prices have doubled in recent weeks as output tumbled by nearly a third to its lowest level in 15 years. Italy’s pre-eminent growing region, Puglia, was hit particularly hard after millions of olive trees were infected with a deadly microbe.
In one type of the fraud, the counterfeit olive oil is relatively harmless, although it is illegal and dupes the consumer out of their cash. In these cases, “Italian extra virgin olive oil” is produced using older, inferior oils from other countries and passed off as a fresh, top-of-the-range product from Italy.
But another version of the fraud poses a far greater risk. In this case, vegetable oil is presented as olive oil by blending it with chlorophyll – for colour – and beta-carotene for flavour.
This poses a danger for people with allergies to chlorophyll – who can develop symptoms such as chest pains and rashes. There is also a risk from the poor hygiene standards employed by the bootleggers, the Italian investigator warns. “It’s not just a question of sub-standard products; it’s a question of health and safety. They do not respect hygiene requirements for food production. They often work in garages and the basements of houses, so it is not a clean place and you can get bacteria contamination,” he said.
The best way for consumers and restaurant buyers to determine whether olive oil is counterfeit is to look at the price. Olive oil comes in so many different varieties and qualities of pressings that it is difficult to compare prices, but broadly it has varied from about £4 to £6.50 a litre at the supermarkets over the past two years.
Experts predict that the rising cost of olives will push up the price of olive oil by about a quarter once it has fed through into the retail system – making any litre bottle of olive oil for much less than £5 look suspicious.
Eoghan Daly, of the Institute of Food Safety Integrity and Protection, said: “They could be mixing in a farm building where they could be introducing E.coli and salmonella risks into the olive oil through cross-contamination. Or in an industrial place, where there could be all sorts of hazardous chemicals.
“And there could be physical contamination through foreign objects such as bits of glass.”
The healthy eating trends of 2015
The healthy eating trends of 2015
1/10 Acai bowls are the new green juice
Who ever thought we’d have been ok with adding spinach to our smoothies? Yet even virtuous green juices started to get something of a bad rep, as the ‘juice fast’ backlash grew and it turned out that some shop-bought juices contained as much sugar as a can of fizzy drink. Bring on Acai bowls, the new darlings of Instagram. Like a gloopier smoothie, these are made with antioxidant-rich acai berries (they are hard to come by - search for powdered or dried berries or frozen puree), which are said to aid weight loss. Blend with frozen bananas, berries and a little nut milk and top with whatever you like - seeds, nuts, cacao nibs, goji berries. A picture-perfect purple powerhouse for breakfast.
Ella Grace Denton, www.weneedtolivemore.com
2/10 Bone broth is the new Miso soup
Remember back in the day when the word ‘broth’ would conjure up visions of Dickensian orphanages? Then miso came along, Gwyneth embraced it, and we all followed suit, lauding how filling and protein rich with little wonder broth was. We’ve come full circle now, as bone broth is back on the radar. The glowing-with-health Hemsley sisters seem to use bone broth in most of their recipes, and rave about its nutritional benefits. “Bone broth is a nourishing all rounder packed with vitamins, minerals, collagen and keratin which makes it amazing for skin – including the dreaded cellulite! The healthy fats in the broth help you to assimilate important vitamins including Vit D.” There you go, something to stew over...
Food Loves Writing, Flickr
3/10 Bee pollen is the new Manuka honey
Every health hipster has a jar of manuka honey on their shelves - if they can afford it that is, a jar can cost about £15. But many claim it is worth its weight in gold, due to its unique antibacterial properties. Traditionally it was used on wounds, but many also claim that it performs miracles combatting cholesterol, diabetes, cancer and digestive problems (although the science is limited). Now bee pollen is the latest ‘superfood’ out there - thought to ward off colds, limit food cravings, improve skin tone, ward off allergies like hay fever (although some caution that it may exacerbate them) and, of course, fight cancer. Again, the science behind these claims is dubious - but it certainly adds a nice sweetness to your morning porridge.
4/10 Kelp is the new kale
Last year saw the emergence of an unassuming green leaf that was previously barely used beyond cattle feed. Now, we have kale chips in Pret, kale juices, ‘massaged’ kale salads - it’s even on the menu in fine dining restaurants. Yawn. Introducing kelp. This seaweed is high in iodine, which is said to improve thyroid function and control metabolism. It is also thought to have anti-aging properties for skin and hair. Try it in salads or add to asian-style soups.
5/10 Matcha is the new green tea
Yes, yes, yes, green tea, weightloss, yadda yadda yadda, boosts metabolism, etc etc. For 2015, though, it’s not about just any old green tea - this is matcha green tea. Made from finely milled high-grade matcha leaves, which are grown in the shade, matcha boasts 130 times more anti-oxidants than your bog standard green tea and is supposed to boost energy levels, lower stress, improve your mood and aid metabolism. It can be consumed as a regular tea, added to steamed milk for a matcha latte or even used to add a pleasant green shade and flavour to ice-cream.
6/10 Whole 30 is the new Paleo diet
Thought you were a culinary champ with your caveman-style eating plan? Well, think again, paleo is for wimps! Ok, not quite, but while people on the paleo plan cut out grains, legumes, sugar and processed foods, there is an increasing trend to paleo-fy your treats, with almond-flour pancakes, banana bread and a lot of brownies. The Whole 30 plan is a purer, stricter version of Paleo and really takes you back to basics when it comes to eating natural foods. The 30-day plan bans scales as well as sugar and alcohol, so that you can concentrate on nourishment rather than weight.
7/10 Fermenting is the new sprouting
Just when we thought we were ahead of the game by starting to sprout our own seeds and with sprouted flours creeping on to the market, the health set had to kick it up a notch. Now it’s all about making your own kombucha (fermented tea), sauerkraut or kimchi (both kinds of pickled cabbage). Fermented foods are said to aid digestion thanks to the creation of enzymes and probiotics in the process. Plus they tend to be high in B-vitamins and Omega-3 fatty acids. Think of it as the new jam-making, and break out those mason jars.
8/10 Banana flour is the new coconut flour
Coconut flour was one of the coolest baking ingredients of the year, beloved by Paleo fans. Its highly absorbent qualities mean you only need a tiny bit for baking, keeping your creations low carb but resulting in the odd dry-crumbly-mess baking fail. Banana flour is the next flour to experiment with. Made from green bananas (and no, not banana-flavoured), it is gluten free and light in texture, so ideal for baking. High in resistant starch, which is effective against colon cancer, obesity, and diabetes, it is already being lauded for its nutritional benefits in Africa and South America, and will surely start to become much more visible on health-food shop shelves in the near future.
9/10 Bulletproof coffee is the new soy latte
Nowadays it is possible to walk into almost any cafe and order a soy latte without being eyeballed as a lunatic by the person behind the counter. But would you have the guts to request a stick of butter in your morning brew? Well, some coffee shops are offering exactly that. Bulletproof coffee is a paleo-friendly invention which involves a black coffee with a dollop of coconut oil or butter. Bleurgh. But advocates say it gives you more slow-release energy, sharpens your brain and helps you to focus - and even that it is delicious. Now the theory has been expanded into a whole ‘Bulletproof’ diet plan, rich in fat. Who wants to bet on when Starbucks will give it a shot?
10/10 Tiger nuts are the new almonds
2014 was a good year for almonds. Gym-goers and raw foodists alike carried around a stash for healthy, protein-rich snacking, almond-milk lattes were quaffed, and almond flour featured in so many paleo and gluten-free treats. Now tiger nuts, or ‘earth almonds’ (yes, really), are about to vie for snacking superiority. Tiger nuts are not nuts, but the tubers of the sedge plant. Originally a key food source for Paleolithic Indians, they have until recently been used as animal feed or a side dish in South America, Africa and the Middle East, or in Hispanic companies made into a sweet, milky drink called horchata. But now the hipsters have got their hands on it, drying, roasting and flavouring with the likes of sweet chilli for an on-the-go snack. High in healthy fats, protein and natural sugar, it is rich in energy content, and thought to help prevent heart disease and improve circulation.
He stressed he was outlining a worst-case scenario.
“The UK is a significant consumer of olive oil with a supply chain running directly from Italy to the UK. It’s a reality that this is happening,” added Mr Daly.
He said the counterfeit product is much more likely to find its way into Britain’s catering and restaurant trade and small, local shops than the big retailers.
Mr Daly is keen for the fraudsters to be found and punished as soon as possible. “If they get away with it, maybe it will be mineral oil rather than vegetable oil they use next time,” he warned.
Know your olives: Facts about the fruit
* Olive trees and oil production can be traced back to the ancient Syrian city-state of Ebla in around 2400BC.
* About 70 per cent of the world’s olives are grown in Spain and Italy. Greece, Portugal, Morocco and Tunisia produce most of the rest.
* The harvest in Puglia, southern Italy has been hit hardest in this year’s bad crop, down by more than 40 per cent.
* Olive oil is produced by pressing whole olives and is used in cooking, cosmetics, pharmaceuticals and soaps.
* The oil is rich in vitamins and energy and regarded by many as the healthiest of the edible oils. It is used across the world as a dressing, for frying, on bread and in baking.
* Extra virgin olive oil is the purest form. It’s made by purely mechanical means. It is the only cooking oil made without chemicals and industrial refining.
* Olive oil started appearing in British kitchens in the 1970s when people adopted parts of the Mediterranean diet.Reuse content