Conn. Takes on Slippery Oil Standards

When food importer Luciano Sclafani spied a three-liter tin of extra virgin olive oil a couple of years ago selling for $9.99, he could tell without tasting a drop that it wasn't legitimate.

Lab tests proved him right. The oil, which should have sold for $25 or $30, was a cheap knockoff, 90 percent soybean oil and 10 percent pomace, the oil that's collected from the ground flesh and pits after pressing.

"Olive oil is the closest thing to my heart that I sell," said Sclafani, president of his family's 97-year-old food-importing and distribution business in Norwalk, Conn.

His revelation helped lead to Friday's announcement by Connecticut consumer protection officials that Connecticut is now the first in the nation to set quality standards for olive oil.

Many nations have standards for olive oil, and its virgin and extra virgin varieties. Extra-virgin olive oil is derived from the first pressing of the olives and has a stronger taste; it is popular to eat with salads or on bread.

But U.S. standards haven't been updated since the late 1940s, making it easy for some suppliers to cut corners and quality.

Connecticut officials say lax standards are also a safety issue -- people allergic to soy, peanuts or other foods should know their virgin olive oil is pure.

"It could be a fatal event," said Jerry Farrell Jr., Connecticut's consumer protection commissioner. "At the very least, even if your allergies are more mild, you're going to be sick from what you eat."

Farrell's office received some reports of people in Connecticut experiencing adverse reactions from adulterated olive oil. There have been no reported deaths.

Across the U.S., an estimated 12 million people, including 3 million children, suffer from food allergies. The Food Allergy and Anaphylaxis Network in Fairfax, Va., reports that 90 percent of all food allergies involve eggs, milk, wheat, soy, fish, shellfish, peanuts and tree nuts.

Steve Taylor, professor of food science and technology at the University of Nebraska, said people with food allergies shouldn't worry much if they consume olive oil that is adulterated with a highly refined oil such as soybean.

"Soybean oil is not considered to be highly allergic to people who are allergic to soybeans, although some do avoid it," he said. "The soy allergies are caused by proteins and the refining process removes virtually all the proteins."

Taylor said he'd be more worried about whether unscrupulous olive oil manufacturers are cutting their product with a substance that's not considered to be food grade.

Connecticut's regulations, which took effect Nov. 5, adopt a "standard of identity" for olive oil sold in the state that mirrors the standards developed by International Olive Oil Council. The regulations define virgin olive oil as "those oils obtained from the fruit of the olive tree solely by mechanical or other physical means ... which have not undergone any treatment other than washing, decanting, centrifuging and filtration."

No additives are permitted in virgin olive oils sold in Connecticut, according the standards.

"It has to be what it is," Sclafani said.

Other states, including New York, New Jersey and Rhode Island, have told Connecticut officials they're interested in creating their own regulations. A new law in California, similar to Connecticut's regulations, takes effect in January.

Connecticut's regulations also give the state's consumer protection department the power to levy fines and pull misleading products from store shelves.

Stopping fraudulent olive oil from reaching consumers is nothing new overseas. In Italy, for example, there's a special police unit trained to distinguish fake extra virgin olive oil from Italy from the real thing.

Bob Bauer, president of the North American Olive Oil Association, said it's unclear where much of the knockoff olive oil is coming from. As a whole, 99.5 percent of the olive oil consumed in the U.S. comes from overseas.

The 90 members of Bauer's group have all pledged to submit to testing to prove they're selling a legitimate product. For years, they've been buying suspicious olive oils off the shelves, getting them tested, and urging state and federal authorities to take some action. But in most cases, the response was limited.

"People have told us there's no standard of identity, so it's difficult for us to go after," he said. Connecticut's new regulation, he said, "is black and white."

Sclafani, who buys his olive oil from Sicily, said consumers should look for a known brand when they're making a purchase. Often, he said, the frauds come in a bottle or tin with a conjured-up Italian name on the label.

He said people should also think twice if the price seems too cheap.

"If it's too good to be true, it's not true," he said. "Let the buyer beware."

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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