Oil Be Damned: Tom Mueller on Olive Oil Fraud


“Great olive oil is sustainable in the truest sense of the word,” Tom Mueller says. I’ve asked him about sustainable food systems, and olives—a truly sustainable food—are his passion.

“Properly cared-for trees can live for 2000 years and more,” he continues. “And in many parts of the world form part of the landscape as well as part of the farmscape. Olive trees require a minimum of irrigation and chemical inputs, and the pure juice of the olive fruit—olives are drupes or stone fruit, like cherries and plums—is a model of sustainable agriculture.”

Mueller is bringing his passion for olives to Halifax this weekend. He is making his way to Halifax along with chefs, restaurateurs, culinary tourism workers and other foodservice and agricultural types as the Canadian Culinary Federation’s annual convention hits town. The CCFCC is the national organization for chefs and cooks. They talk about the industry, trends, issues and education in the sector. This year they are focusing on sustainable food systems.

I had the opportunity to talk to a few of the participants and visitors that are involved both directly and indirectly with the forum on sustainability that is a part of the conference agenda for an article in this week’s issue of The Coast. Tom Mueller, the author of Extra Virginity: The Sublime and Scandalous World of Olive Oil, was one of those people.

The fraud that surrounds the olive oil industry—the regularity of big companies secretly diluting pure olive oil with various additives—be they cheaper olive oils or even completely different types of oils—has become a passion project for Mueller. The book, in fact, is basically an offshoot of a 2007 article Mueller wrote for The New Yorker on the subject.

While Mueller’s visit coincides with the CCFCC conference, he is not actually a part of the official agenda. He was—at first—but one of the sponsors apparently objected to his participation due to some of his comments surrounding olive oil. That isn’t dampening his spirit, though.

“I’m looking forward to spending some time in Halifax, talking about quality olive oil—what it is, why we all need to eat it, who makes it—and about the other kind, the fake extra virgin which fills our supermarket shelves,” says Mueller.

He has a lot to say on the issue.

“Olive oil is the tip of the iceberg of food, both quality and fraud.  The issues I raise in Extra Virginity—a generalized lack of truth in labeling, the absence of consumer protection by official sources in many countries, the increasing dumbing down of olive oil quality in supermarkets, the fact that both honest producers and the vast majority of consumers are being taken advantage of by a small but compact and powerful group of middlemen—are all central to many foods in North America and beyond.”

I touched on the fact that Nova Scotia’s food culture is a bit different—younger—than the culture of Italy in the Coast article, and that is something that I find particularly fascinating on a certain level. While there are major differences in our cultural approach to food, there is a base appreciation that is very similar. And because Nova Scotia is lucky enough to have a similar breadth of access to fresh foods—from beef and lamb to seafood, fruits, vegetables, herbs, etc, in our fertile valleys and on our shores—there is an agricultural wealth here that echoes that of Italy.

“The interesting thing to me,” says Mueller, “is that in many young food cultures, such as in Nova Scotia, the consumer may not know about a given food, but they are often ready, even eager, to learn about them.  Their appreciation of quality can grow quickly—as it has in many parts of North America regarding wine, coffee, microbrew beer, artisanal cheeses and other foods.”

“Interestingly,” he continues, “in the Old World (eg in Italy where I live) people may grow up with a given food, but be hindered by provincial prejudices from actually understanding that food in a global quality context. For example, in the corner of Liguria where I live, people have always made olive oil from overripe Taggiasca olives; hence their oil starts overripe and rapidly goes off.  Yet if you give them a clean, fresh olive oil with good pungency and bitterness, they’re convinced that it’s no good.  They’re convinced that the only good olive oil in the world is what is made this little corner of the world.”

Olive Oil

I was actually lucky enough to visit a small organic olive oil factory that was a part of a small farm that I stayed on in Pescosolido in Lazio, Italy. Watching the olives processed into a pure oil—an oil that I would spend a week slathering on bread and eating with fresh pasta—was a true education. I basically got to see the life span of an olive taken from harvest to its final bow, as the mash from which the oil was pressed is dried to create bricks for winter fireplace fuel. Not a scrap wasted. Not a use overlooked.

Of course we won’t always have the opportunity to see the foods we eat picked, processed or packaged in front of our very eyes, but—as Mueller says—we should still try to be aware.

“It is absolutely critical, whatever the food, that the consumer know exactly where on the planet it was made, who made it, and how,” he says. “In the case of olive oil and other fresh foods, they also need to seek out freshness, using their eyes (labels that list harvest date and best by date) and their noses & palates.”

Tom Mueller will be signing copies of his book on Saturday, June 2, at Liquid Gold in the Hydrostone. 12pm-2pm. I bet he’ll talk to you about olive oil, too, if you ask nicely.