The Dark Side of Olive Oil: The Truth Behind Olive Oil Fraud

This video explores the issue of olive oil fraud, highlighting a case where an organized crime network in Italy imported cheap seed oil, colored it with chlorophyll, and labeled it as extra virgin olive oil. These criminals were selling the fake oil to buyers who believed they were purchasing high-quality olive oil from reputable regions. The video also reveals that olive oil fraud is widespread, with many brands mixing low-quality oils or using deceptive labeling practices. There is a lack of enforcement standards in the United States, making it challenging for consumers to identify and purchase genuine extra virgin olive oil. The video concludes by providing tips on how to find legitimate olive oil.

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Key Insights:

  • A police investigation in Southern Italy uncovered a large-scale olive oil fraud operation, where cheap seed oil was being colored and sold as extra virgin olive oil.
  • The mafia was involved in importing cheap oil, bottling it, and labeling it as high-quality Italian extra virgin olive oil.
  • Studies have shown that a large percentage of olive oil on store shelves claiming to be extra virgin fails to meet the standards for quality and authenticity.
  • Italy, known for its genuine quality olive oil, is also home to regions with a strong presence of the mafia and olive oil fraud.
  • The US lacks enforcement standards for olive oil, making it a prime market for olive oil fraud.
  • Consumers can look for specific details on packaging, such as quality seals, and educate themselves about legitimate extra virgin olive oil to ensure they are getting the real thing.


(gentle dramatic music) – Your olive oil may not be what it claims to be. claims to be. – [Johnny] A couple years ago in southern Italy the police were spying on an organized crime network. (Person speaking Italian) – [Johnny] Their undercover footage shows these large tanker trucks passing into their compound. They started tracking these trucks with GPS and found that the trucks were loaded with oil. They were delivering this oil to markets and restaurants in Germany. They were selling it to buyers who thought that they were buying high quality extra virgin olive oil from the best olive regions in the world. (suspenseful music) After many months of this investigation the police finally busted into the compound and what they found is that these criminals were importing cheap seed oil that cost them just over one euro per liter, but then they were coloring it with like chlorophyll to make it look like olive oil. They even had the machinery to bottle this oil and to label it with the important words extra virgin olive oil with a nice little Italian flag on it. At the height of their operation they were selling around 23,000 liters per week to customers in the north for 5 to 10 times the cost that they bought this cheap seed oil for. The police estimated that they were bringing in around 8 million euros a year. In the end, 24 people were arrested and 150,000 liters of fake olive oil were seized. (Reporter speaking Italian) (gentle music) – Good olive oil is really hard to make. It’s delicate, it’s hard to ship across the world but when you get the real stuff, extra virgin olive oil it’s really healthy and delicious. And from the mafia in southern Italy to mainstream olive oil brands on your grocery store shelf olive oil is full of fraud and deception. In fact, there’s a chance that you’ve never actually tasted extra virgin olive oil, even if you think you have. So let me show you how this happened and why it even matters. And how you can get in on the real stuff, real extra virgin olive oil. ‚Cause I’m telling you, when you do, when you taste this, it’s unlike any substance on earth. (upbeat music) I’ve been working out lately, like I can do 10 pull-ups, which when I started this journey like 10 months ago I could do one, now I can do 10. And that’s because of CoPilot. CoPilot is this platform where you get paired up with a personal fitness coach and you communicate with that fitness coach via a very well designed app. My coach is named Devyn and he’s great and I’ve told him all about my goals. I wanna be able to lift my body, I want to just have a workout that’s approachable and not like grueling and he designed a custom workout step by step. So every day when it’s time to work out I open up this app, I press start workout, it fires it up on my watch and on my phone and I start working out, I just follow the instructions. There’s like video demonstrations of each step so that it’s crystal clear and then it moves you on to the next activity. What this does is, number one it gives you a real person to stand accountable to which is just so much better than like a YouTube video that you’re watching and no one else knows that you’re working out. CoPilot found that people are nine times more likely to stick to a workout routine if there’s a real person that they have to stand accountable to. Nine times, which is actually not that surprising, it it makes sense. Number two, it allows you to customize a workout exactly to what you want. Oh, and at the end of every workout I’m able to give feedback to my coach Devyn and be like, „Hey Devyn, I think it was too easy today on the arms. Can we make it harder?“ And he the next day has coded in a new workout that is harder on the arms. The other thing this does is it takes away ambiguity. Like I think the killer of motivation is ambiguity. Like you’re like, „So what do I start with?“ And with CoPilot, you just press a button and it tells you what to start with, which for me at like six in the morning when I’m working out because I need to to be happy, I don’t want to think, I just want to get it done. And CoPilot makes that happen because of its very fancy app. I try my best to actually use the products that I endorse here on this channel. Obviously this is a business, I need to sponsor these videos so that we can make good journalism, but also like I’ve used this for 10 months and I can vouch for it, it’s a pretty dang good product. So there’s a link in my description. It is, just click the link, it helps support this channel, but it also gives you 14 days for free with your own personal fitness coach. So that you can design your own workout and have somebody to stand accountable to and make those workout goals actually come true. Thank you CoPilot for empowering me to do 10 pull-ups and for existing and for sponsoring today’s video. Let’s get back to our story about the mafia and olive oil. (upbeat music) Most olive oil in the world is made here in these sunny climates of the Mediterranean. Thousands of years ago, people here figured out that juicing the fruit of this ancient tree produces a golden oil that’s like magic. They adored this tree. Its branches were worn by the goddess of peace or a victorious olympian. It was an olive branch that told Noah that the flood was over. Over the centuries it became a sacred tree with a sacred fruit that produced a sacred liquid. It was food, it was medicine, it was fuel, it was a cosmetic, it was a key part of religious rituals for people of the Mediterranean for thousands of years. The rest of the world didn’t know much about this special oil until the 1960s when an American doctor was conducting a health study of over 13,000 middle aged men from seven countries. He found that the people of Italy and Greece lived longer and were generally healthier, despite being ravaged by war and poverty. He concluded that it must be because of what they ate, fish, nuts, vegetables, and, of course, copious amounts of olive oil instead of butter. (upbeat music) Soon word spread to the rest of the world that this Mediterranean diet was the way to live longer and that olive oil was a key ingredient. It’s the ’70s and ’80s and everyone is talking about olive oil. – Major health headline here tonight and it involves a very popular diet, the Mediterranean diet full of olive oil. – Olive oil. – Olive oil – Extra virgin olive oil. – What is the best olive oil? – A little olive oil, or if you like use a lot. – Between 1958 and 2019, global production of olive oil tripled. Demand in the United States exploded. Olive oil is no longer a regional thing. By the 1990s this has become a huge international supply chain Serving customers around the world who are willing to pay, to pay a lot more for this extra virgin olive oil. The stuff that scientists was saying was an elixir of health and longevity. – You can combine what is beneficial for health to what really taste. And people, of course, they are quick to grasp the importance of combining good food with good health. – [Johnny] Suddenly these small olive oil operations in rural parts of southern Italy have international customers clamoring to get in on their product. So they start selling their oil to middlemen who can take it and sell it to a co-op. The co-op gets all the oil together and then sells it to another co-op who eventually sells it to a company who bottles it and then ships it to a far away country to be put on grocery store shelves. This complex supply chain with all these middlemen comes with a lot of opportunities for people to take advantage of this newfound love for this magical, expensive oil. But to understand olive oil fraud you first really have to understand the magic of extra virgin olive oil. (mysterious music) Every winter at farms around the Mediterranean farmers head to their groves to comb through the branches of these ancient trees at just the right time so that this delicate fruit is perfectly ripe as it falls to the ground carpeting the grove floor. The clock immediately starts ticking. Within 24 hours they must get this precious fruit to the mill where the olives are crushed and then spun in a centrifuge until the oil is separated. No heat, no filters, no chemicals, nothing. Just high quality olives quickly pressed one time and spun, then bottled, then crucially kept dark, kept cool, sealed and ideally consumed within 18 months. It’s a delicate resource intensive process to pull this off, and even more so when you then have to ship it across the globe. But it’s really the only way to get this magical liquid that we call extra virgin olive oil. The stuff that’s good for your heart, for your brain, for your bones. The stuff that tastes like fatty grassy gold. This stuff is so good. And this is where I tell you that most olive oil is kind of a lie. Sometimes a white lie and other times a mafia is deceiving you kind of lie. So first things first, Italian olive oil is important here. If you look at this price graph of Italian olive oil you’ll see that it’s quite a bit more expensive than the olive oil coming from the other big players in this space, Spain and Greece. Italian olive oil is more expensive, not only because it is known for genuine quality, but also because it’s Italy. Italy is Italy, it looks like this. It’s food looks like this. Italy has the perception of being the gourmet food epicenter of the world. So people, including me, are willing to pay more for Italian extra virgin olive oil because it’s good and it’s from Italy. On that point, let me show you two kind of insane maps. First look where most olive oil is made in Italy. It’s the darker areas down here. And second, let’s look at the regions of Italy where the mafia is most present. Right down here next to this toe and the heel of the boot. The regions with the highest production of olive oil are the regions where the mafia is and this is where it all comes together. There’s this ancient trading city right on the toe of the boot. (gentle dramatic music) The Calabrian Mafia, one of Italy’s most influential clans controls this busy port in this city. They also control or influence much of the farmland in this area, including olive groves. In 2016, this mafia clan was shipping in cheap, low grade, chemically treated olive oil called pumice. They would then bottle this up and label it as extra virgin olive oil from Italy even though it was like a derivative of olive oil chemically treated and not from Italy. But then they would ship this olive oil to importers in New York City, in Boston, in Chicago. Importers who thought they were buying the best olive oil in the world from the best region in the world. But really they were paying for cheap oil and giving huge profit margins to the mafia committing this fraud. The Italian food police, which is like literally a thing, eventually busted this scheme. – [Reporter] We arrest of one of the most powerful street gangs in Calabria. – Olive oil is hard to detect as fake. It kind of all looks the same. You have to have a trained eye to know if like the color is off. Most people aren’t drinking olive oil, they’re cooking with it or putting it on their salad and they’re kind of just assuming that it’s legitimate and that it’s giving them health benefits. And a lot of people don’t really know what good olive oil tastes like. So olive oil fraud is particularly easy. And particularly lucrative, because of the premium price that good extra virgin olive oil commands. Because of this Italy has an entire investigative unit dedicated to food fraud, and they’re regularly busting these fraud schemes. Some of them are less extreme than the ones we’ve talked about. A really common one is people will ship in olive oil from Spain, they will bottle it in Italy and then they will put a label that says that it’s Italian olive oil and they will sell it at a higher premium because Italian olive oil commands a higher price. But oftentimes it’s even more subtle than that. Olive oil companies will mix extra virgin olive oil with old or decaying oil or they’ll use olives that have been sitting on the floor of the grove for like a couple of weeks and they’re like, eh, we will just like press them anyway and call it extra virgin olive oil. And it’s not, it’s a different thing. Again, this is a really complex supply chain with lots of opportunities for people to step in and change it from this delicate liquid called extra virgin olive oil to something else, and it’s really hard to detect. A lot of this olive oil ends up on your supermarket shelf with a photo of a humble Italian farmer in an idyllic landscape with words like cold pressed or premium selection with pretend stamps of approval that don’t mean anything. I mean listen, these could all be legit extra virgin olive oils but I don’t know because here in the US we actually have no enforcement standards. Luckily scientists have tested this. One of the first big tests on this was from researchers at UC Davis, a college in California. They went out and bought a bunch of olive oil from stores in California. They tested them to see if they met the standards for extra virgin olive oil and they found that 69% of imported olive oil that was claiming to be extra virgin failed to meet the internationally recognized sensory standards where an expert tastes it and can tell if it’s actually extra virgin or not. And of those 31% failed to meet the chemical standards, meaning they were too acidic. A lot of this stuff is not extra virgin olive oil. Now I’m sure I’m gonna get an email from people in the olive oil industry saying that this study isn’t actually legit because it was only a sample size of olive oil in stores in California. But this was actually just one of several studies over the years that have shown the same thing. Most of the olive oil on our shelves claiming to be that amazing golden liquid that is delicately produced and stored and contains the fullness of the taste and the health benefits of olives, AKA extra virgin olive oil, most of these labels are lying. Now most of the oil in these bottles does come from olives. Like there’s not a lot of that fraud where they’re like taking seed oil and pretending that it’s olive oil that’s been clamped down on. Still happens, but not very often. But again, it being made from olives is not what makes extra virgin olive oil special. It is the way that it’s made. It’s the way that it’s processed. It’s how quickly they take the fruit from the grove and they press it and bottle it and store it and ship it. This oil is not that. It is not extra virgin anymore. And yet they slap a label so that you and I feel like we’re getting the best stuff and we’re getting it for a good price. You would be in big trouble if you got caught labeling it as such in Italy and a lot of European countries. But wait, why haven’t these companies who are doing it in the United States gotten in trouble? Because in America we don’t care. Whereas in Italy they literally have laws that are violated when you label something as extra virgin olive oil and it’s not. Here in the US, we have no laws for this. Companies don’t have to test their olive oil to prove that it’s extra virgin. They can just import them and slap on extra virgin to the label and no one can do anything about it. Between this and the fact that most Americans probably don’t know what extra virgin olive oil even takes like so they don’t know what to expect. The US has become what one expert calls the dumping grounds for olive oil that says it’s extra virgin and it’s not. So is there any hope here? Can you ever try the real stuff extra virgin olive oil that is like magical golden liquid? Yes you can. It exists. You just need to know what to look for. We put together a list of tips on how you can find legitimate extra virgins olive oil and know that you’re getting the good stuff. I’m gonna put the link in the description. It’s everything from the material that the bottle is made out of to the nuances in the packaging and labeling and the date labeling, the quality seals. We also give you some ideas on some of the trickery that companies try to fake it to try to make it look legit but it’s actually not. So that link is in a description. If you want to try extra virgin olive oil and get your hands on it and are willing to pay for it because spoiler alert it is more expensive than the fake stuff that’s pretending to be real, then you can go check out that doc and hopefully it’s helpful. The point is that it is possible and I guess if you’re still here watching this video you’re wondering why is this so important? Like why are we talking about oil and olive oil fraud? And there are a couple answers. Number one is that this is a really amazing old tradition. It’s a tradition that fueled the civilizations in the Mediterranean for thousands of years. The harvesting and pressing and bottling and consumption of olive oil, good olive oil is an old delicate tradition. And when you mix capitalism with that you often get a race to the the bottom on who can make it the cheapest and sell it for the cheapest so that they can make the most money. And inevitably you will get opportunistic people who try to trick you to make you think that it’s the real thing so that you’ll pay for it. And this hurts the producers who are actually doing the resource intensive process of harvesting and processing this in the right way. And at the end of the day, to me, it is absolutely worth it. Good extra virgin olive oil is unlike anything else. A few years ago I discovered that I had never actually tasted extra virgin olive oil. So I bought my first bottle. It was kind of expensive, it was like $25 and I started using it on everything. I even started drinking it raw just to like get the flavor because I’m kind of weird and that’s what I do and I’m sorry, but it’s just delicious. And I started to understand why this stuff became so sacred for so many cultures in the Mediterranean. Why it’s like a part of every major religion. Why it has endured as a health and culinary staple. And I guess in knowing how valuable this liquid is I actually understand why fraudsters and the mafia got involved here, why they tried to deceive us into thinking that we are consuming the most magical liquid on earth, even if we’re not. (upbeat music) Thanks for watching the video. Am I too obsessed with olive oil? Is that a thing? Because I’m, I just really like it and I just had to make this video because I just am I think this video was me being obsessed with olive oil and also me being so frustrated at when the international economy like screws us over with opportunistic corporations. Like those two things coming together is what this video is. So thank you for watching. I hope you get in on the the how to buy good olive oil doc that we put together in the description. I want to thank those who support us over at The Newsroom, which is our Patreon. We obviously do sponsorships for our videos, which is a major way that we’re able to do these. But in addition, The Newsroom has become a community of people who want to support the independent journalism we’re doing here and I’m deeply appreciative of that. Over on The Newsroom, you can get access to a behind the scenes vlog that we do every month that introduces you to the team shows you what we’re up to, how we do what we do, just sort of gives you a behind the scenes. And then you also get access to my scripts. You get access to Tom Fox music if you want but more importantly you get access to the warm fuzzy feeling that you are supporting independent journalism on YouTube. So I think that’s why most people subscribe to The Newsroom, is because it is supporting this kind of work. Other ways you can support, we’ve put LUTs and Presets, which are how we edit our videos and our photos. I made a map poster that I really like. That’s super cool and fun. And if you have purchased it, please tag me on Instagram so you can show me what it looks like in your room. We launched a new channel that’s probably a huge thing I should have said first. Search Party is a new channel that is live now. We launched it with my old colleague from Vox, Sam Ellis, the creator of Vox Atlas. He now has his own channel and it is in collaboration with us and we are all working together now and it’s awesome. So Search Party is live. I think those are all the things I need to tell you here in this little end part of the video. I’m looking forward to hearing your thoughts and your comments. I always appreciate the back and forth and the dialogue and the feedback, so keep that up. And thank you CoPilot for, for sponsoring today’s video. Thank you all for being here. I’ll see you in the next one. (gentle music)