I have been working on an investigation about the olive oil fraud in the UK. The story “Tracking the olive oil fraudsters” was published here.
As part of the process, I also put together a list of resources for journalists to report about the oleic industry and the food fraud sector in the UK and within the European Union.
Types of olive oil
Firstly, it is worth knowing that the word ‘virgin’ in an olive oil means that it was obtained “solely by mechanical or other physical means” without alterations “other than washing, decantation, centrifugation, and filtration,” according to the International Olive Council (n.d.).
This ‘virgin’ oil can be an:
- Extra virgin
- Lampante virgin (not for consumption)
Other types are:
- Refined olive oil: obtained from virgin olive oils by refining methods. This may only be sold directly to the consumer if permitted in the country of sale.
- Olive oil: blend of refined olive oil and virgin olive oil.
- Pomace olive oil: obtained by treating the fruit pulp with solvents. There are several types: crude olive pomace, refined olive pomace oil, olive pomace oil.
The process of categorisation
The olive oil is the only agricultural product which requires two tests to establish its commercial category. Both analyses are regulated by the International Olive Council (2016) and included in the Communitarian regulations (Commission Regulation 1991, 2012).
The role of the EU is to assure that the control systems at national level are effective. This task is carried out by the European Commission’s Directorate-General for Health and Food Safety. States are, however, responsable for the enforcement of food and feed law.
The chemistry test determines the level of acidity, peroxides, and the ultraviolet absorption, among others. The sensory analysis (also called organoleptic) is carried out by a tasting group, the Panel Test (International Olive Council, n.d.). They measure the odour and flavour; the last step to give the Extra Virgin category.
The International Olive Council publishes the list of validated laboratories for each test (International Olive Council, 2017). There is no official laboratory in the UK.
As for labelling, the main parameters established in the EU Regulation (Commission Regulation, 2012) are:
- Packaging must not exceed 5 liters
- The geographical origin is only compulsory in extra virgin and virgin.
- Each type of olive oil must have a specific phrase on the label.
Data about olive oil
The first one refers to virgin olive oil and the second one to pomace olive oil. If looking for a specific category, the code will be expanded:
15091010 — Lampante.
15091020 — Extra virgin.
15091080 — Virgin.
15091090 — Extra virgin + virgin other than lampante (until 2016)
15099000 — Olive oil and refined olive oil
1510 Pomace olive oil and blends with other olive oils of heading 1509.
The HMRC does not hold figures broken down by bottled or bulk, nor by brands, although it publishes details about the importers and exporters.
Regarding consumption, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (2018) publishes the family food datasets. However, figures are not broken down into categories of olive oils. This information is “not held by another public authority,” says DEFRA.
As for brands, I scraped six of the main retailers in the UK to get that information.
Own brands make half of the products, while a quarter is Italian, which does not mean that the oil comes from Italy.
More broadly, the European Union holds statistics about the imports and exports within the States Members (European Commission, 2017). And the International Olive Council (n.d.) is an excellent source to find worldwide statistics about imports and exports, production, consumption, and prices.
However, nor the EU or the IOC break the data down by types of olive oil or bulk/bottling, but they are improving their gathering methods and more detailed figures will be available in the coming years.
Data about food fraud
There is no harmonised definition for food fraud.
The EU considers it as a violation of the EU law, which committed intentionally to pursue an economic gain through consumer deception (European Commission, 2018). But, The National Food Crime Unit differs it from food crime.
“Food fraud becomes food crime when the scale and potential impact of the activity is considered to be serious,” Food Safety Agency, 2018.
In 2013, the EU created the Food Fraud Network, under the responsibility of the European Commission Directorate-General for Health and Food Safety (DG-SANTE).
The Directorate considers four categories of fraud:
- Lower quality
- Forged documentation
- Fraud with respect to the Protected Designation of Origin.
This network is “based on trust” and the countries have no obligation to report to the Administrative Assistance and Cooperation (AAC) system. So, the data is not “statistically reliable,” as the Directorate said (Annex A).
The DG-SANTE offers another system which provides with data related to problems with food: the Rapid Alert System for Food and Feed (RASFF). But it gathers information when there is “a serious direct or indirect risk to human health,” says the European Commission (2018). And the olive oil problems are hardly related to health risks.
Since 2000, only 1.5% of the alerts in the RASFF is related to fats and oil. Among them, olive oil was involved in just four out of the 26 cases.
Europol and Interpol carry out an annual joint operation to detect and withdrawn from the market counterfeit drink and food products. 61 countries took part in this operation in 2017, and their main results are published in the OPSON reports (Europol, 2017).
However, when contacted, Europol said they do not hold information regarding olive oil fraud.
The Food Standards Agency and the Food Standards Scotland are the two contact points in the European Food Fraud Network (European Commission, 2018).
But the Food Standard Agency said that the institution “does not hold the information” of olive oil fraud cases. “The questions you posed fall wholly within the remit of the Rural Payments Agency (RPA, 2017).”
The RPA carried out 3,634 tests from 131 samples of olive oil during 2015 and 2016. A third did not compliant with one or more chemical or organoleptic parameters (Annex A).
The institution did not disclosure the name of the brands but provide with the main reasons for failure.
The Ministry of Justice (2018) publishes statistics from the Criminal Justice System. One of the categories is food fraud, but there was no record of it in the last report.
EXPERTS AND ORGANISATIONS
The European funded Oleum project aims to improve the method for assuring the quality and authenticity of olive oil and prevent the fraud.
The network is led by the University of Bologna and it has 20 members. The British one is FERA, which was involved in the previous EU program Food integrity (2015). Paul Brereton, scientist and professor in the Queen’s University of Belfast, was the program coordinator.
Another British authority is Judy Ridgway, and the investigative journalist Tom Mueller is well known for his book ‘Extra Virginity’ (Mueller, 2011), about corruption in the extra virgin sector.
More broadly, Food Authenticity is a British network under the DEFRA’s initiative, which is an excellent point to find experts.
I have also curated a Twitter list which may be helpful.
The improvement of information
As states above, there is no easy approach to the food fraud data reporting. The EU and UK food watchdogs are young bodies whose figures are not entirely representative yet.
Furthermore, there are concerns with commercial information disclosure, and the statistics may not show a fair picture. Fraud is usually under-reported, because of the businesses’ fear of reputational damage and the lack of detection by consumers.
However, the creation of these organisms in the last seven years suggests an increasing attention by the authorities, what would mean a more accurate raw material for journalists in the coming years.
Consumers/readers share this interest. A report from the National Food Crime Unit (2017) says that public “may elect to pay more for products to reduce their exposure to unsafe food.”
The same report highlights that “even a tiny percentage prevalence (of fraud in food and drinks) could amount to a substantial sum of money,” due to the industry represents 11% of the UK GDP.
It is, hence, worth increasing the knowledge and the contacts within the sector. The bodies and experts mentioned in this brief are a first step, but some events are an optimal opportunity to broaden the network of experts, who are usually difficult to approach.
Clickable and professional stories
Including “fraud” in a headline catches people’s attention, even more, if a popular product follows it. And there are plenty of examples online.
Nevertheless, while investigating the olive oil sector, I came across with a significant proportion of stories which do not include data nor authoritative sources. Articles which mention “according to experts,” but never give any name. Or those that warn consumers about a ‘vague and inaccurate’ increase of “fake” oil. Or those which rely on tests carried out by consumers’ associations and not official laboratories.
Alarming about fraud can damage the whole sector and not only the company involved. It should also bear in mind the vested interests of the source reporting about fraud, as some organisations see that a way of lowering the price of the product.
These unprofessional practices mislead the readers/consumers, by making them believe that “there is no way of knowing what you are consuming” or that “everything is fake.” But it also provokes a rejection by the experts towards journalists, making the relationship difficult.
I hope this guide has given you resources to improve not only the reporting about the olive oil industry but also about food fraud.