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Don’t fall victim to the olive oil scam

Visit any American supermarket and you’ll likely find rows of golden olive oils, many with quaint labels declaring them Italian extra virgin. But as 60 Minutes explores this week, Italy’s olive oil business has been corrupted by the mafia, which is making money by manipulating Italian food products in ways that could affect American consumers. Italians call it the “Agromafia” and it’s estimated to be a $16 billion-a-year business. One result: much of the olive oil we import is not as pure as it seems.

Guy Campanile, the Italian-American producer in the story, had never been to Italy during the olive oil harvest before and says he has a new appreciation for true extra virgin oil. “When you walk into the mill, you’re hit with this amazing aroma of olive oil that’s so nice, it makes the hairs on the back of your neck stand up,” she tells Overtime editor Ann Silvio at video on top. “I don’t know what it is, but it’s almost primal how wonderful it is.”

Authentic extra virgin olive oil comes exclusively from the first pressing of the olive harvest and contains no additives. “You know, when you see it there [in Italy]it’s this almost luminescent green,” says Campanile. “It looks like nothing you’ve seen before and tastes like nothing you’ve tasted before.”

Unfortunately, by the time this heavenly liquid reaches American shores, much of it has lost its luster, often due to improper storage or handling. Journalist Tom Mueller, who has done researched the industryestimates that half of the oil sold as extra virgin in Italy and 75-80 percent of the oil sold in the US do not meet the legal grades for extra virgin oil.

The most common type of fraud, Campanile explains, is mixing Italian extra virgins with lower quality olive oils from North Africa and the Mediterranean. In other cases, a bottle labeled “extra virgin olive oil” may not be olive oil at all, just sunflower seed oil made to look and smell like olive oil with a few drops of chlorophyll and beta-carotene. Major Sergio Tirro of Italy’s Carabinieri police, one of Europe’s top food fraud investigators, showed 60 Minutes’ Bill Whitaker how easy it is to make a realistic-looking fake.

“Olive oil fraud has been going on for the better part of four millennia,” says Campanile. “The difference now is that the food supply chain is so vast, so global and so lucrative that it’s easy for bad guys to introduce adulterated olive oils or mix lower quality olive oils with extra virgin olive oil “.

So what’s a foodie to do? Campanile has some suggestions. For starters, he says, take a good look at the label. It may have a pretty Italian landscape, but was the oil actually produced in Italy? If so, where? Campanile says he gets excited when he’s from a town in Sicily or Pulla known for producing olive oil.

American shoppers can also buy online directly from Italian producers like Lucia Iannotta, who directs Iannotta oil or Nicholas Clemenza, who is organizing his fellow farmers to eliminate the means of the mafia.

Because freshness is important, Campanile says, you might want to consider California extra virgin olive oil, which can be pressed and shipped more quickly. But if it’s Italian you want, expect to pay more for the real deal. “If you’re paying seven or eight dollars for a bottle of Italian extra virgin olive oil,” he says, “it’s probably not Italian extra virgin.”

This video was produced by Ann Silvio and Lisa Orlando, and edited by Lisa Orlando.


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