For fraudsters, disruptions in supply and demand signal opportunity. Unfortunately for olive oil lovers, a poor European harvest presents just such a chance, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) cautions. As part of a special project, the agency has begun collecting samples nationwide to ward against adulteration.
The CFIA has fined past transgressors for diluting olive oil with less expensive fats such as sunflower and palm oils. While economically motivated, the fraudulent practice represents a potential food safety risk as well. “Olive oil has been on our radar for many years. We in fact direct our inspectors to pay particular attention to olive oil when they are in a distribution centre or in an importer,” Aline Dimitri, CFIA deputy chief food safety officer, told CBC Radio. “The real problem is, what if it’s cut with peanut oil, and someone is allergic to it and they do not know it is in there? That is why we keep our eyes out, that’s why our inspectors are very vigilant and why once in a while we do these bigger projects.”
The CFIA has had past success in combatting fraudulent olive oil. In 2006, it stepped up its enforcement and began regularly testing virgin and extra-virgin product samples to ensure standards were being met. In three years, the percentage of offending samples had plummeted from 47 per cent to 11 per cent, according to Larry Olmsted’s Real Food/Fake Food (2016).
Due to frosts and pests, Italian olive oil production hit an all-time low in 2018 (declining by nearly 60 per cent), with producers in Greece and Portugal also experiencing shortfalls. As a result, Canadian retail prices have skyrocketed by more than 40 per cent since June in some instances, according to Sylvain Charlebois, professor in food distribution and policy at Dalhousie University.
“It’s a targeted product because usually it is expensive and often you’re dealing with a marketplace that is not overly educated in terms of how olive oil should taste,” Charlebois told CTV News. “So it’s easy to trick the consumer.” If you’re questioning the veracity of your olive oil, contact the CFIA.