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Columbus Vegetable Oils technician tests oil in the lab

Consumer demand for olive oil has spiked in recent years, and with that demand has come a wave of fraudulent practices to pass off diluted, lesser-quality oil as the real thing. The fraud, referred to as adulteration, is most pronounced in the highly coveted—and highly priced—extra virgin olive oil (EVOO) category. 

“Adulteration of olive oil is a frequent and common occurrence globally and domestically, driven mostly by economic motives,” says Rick Cummisford, director of quality control at Columbus Vegetable Oils (CVO), one of the largest family owned and operated oil processing and packaging operations in the United States. “Olive harvest problems the past couple of years have resulted in a near doubling of olive oil prices. Now there’s an even bigger profit motive for unscrupulous industry players.” 

Unrefined and made from pure, freshly pressed olives, EVOO is sought after for its superior flavor and nutritional properties—so sought after, it’s become an estimated $10-billion-dollar industry globally that continues to trend upward. “I’ve seen people trying to pass off 100 percent soybean oil as extra virgin olive oil,” says Cummisford, a chemist who has been with CVO for 24 years. But the tide might now be changing. Late last year, European authorities cracked down on counterfeit olive oil profiteers, charging 11 people with running a food fraud operation and seizing about 680,000 gallons of adulterated oil, and Cummisford says the oils industry is coming together in new ways to curb the problem. Below, he discusses oil authenticity and steps companies can take to protect themselves. 

When it comes to oils, what does authenticity mean? 

Authenticity means the product is pure and unadulterated and fresh. “Pure and unadulterated” means it meets the industry standards assigned to it by the USDA and by [the international food safety standards-setting body] Codex Alimentarius and has not been diluted with cheaper, inferior oils. “Fresh” means the product hasn’t gone rancid. Oils are very stable, but they oxidize over time. As an oil oxidizes, it slowly loses its quality and its shelf life. That directly impacts the products our customers make with our oils, so we ensure everything comes to us fresh. 

How do you safeguard olive oil’s authenticity? 

Freshness can be determined through a simple test to measure the product’s peroxide value. This is essentially the first step in testing the degradation of the oil, and it’s very accurate. Say vendor A sends us oil that’s already five months old. We test it at our facility, and if its peroxide value is high—and above our limits—the oil is rejected. The oil could be pure, but if it’s not fresh we don’t use it. With olive oil, authenticity can also be easily determined through testing. You can pick out soybean and canola oils, for example, fast and easily. You can also detect other cheaper grades of olive oil, like olive pomace oil, which has a similar profile to extra virgin olive oil. We have a staff of technicians onsite that put our products through a rigorous testing protocol. Olive oil is subject to global standards of authenticity, purity, and freshness, set by the International Olive Council, and it is tested even before being imported to the United States. However, once it arrives at our door, we nonetheless check the certificate of analysis from the vendor and conduct several additional tests in-house to verify it is what they say it is.

Does diluted olive oil pose a food safety issue? 

This is not so much a food safety issue—diluting olive oil is not going to cause illness. With oils, there’s little risk of any type of contamination. There’s no pathogen risk. There’s no allergen risk. The main thing we’ve got to contend with is oxidation. Oil blends, when labeled properly and presented with transparency, can in fact be beneficial for a user’s application and needs. Dilution and adulteration, on the other hand, is the practice of fraud and deception.

Is there a larger movement afoot to curb the adulteration of olive oil? 

There’s a lot of industry movement right now. The North American Olive Oil Association and other industry groups are currently petitioning the Food and Drug Administration for stricter quality and labeling practices that would clearly define olive oil grades and a standard of identity for olive oil sold within the United States. These measures would be enforceable and would aim to help consumers better understand olive oil’s quality and authenticity.  

In the meantime, how can buyers protect themselves?

Buyers need to verify the vendor’s integrity and ask for certifications of the products compared against the known industry standards. Furthermore, vendors can provide other supporting documents to ensure purity, quality, and freshness such as a letter of guarantee, which includes language about adulteration and food fraud programs as required by the FDA and Global Food Safety Initiative (GFSI) auditing schemes.  

Tell me more about Columbus Vegetable Oils.

We are a fourth-generation, certified woman-led company founded in 1936 and based in the Chicago suburb of Des Plaines, Illinois, with a production facility in Reno, Nevada. We supply high-quality oils, shortenings, sauces, and dressings to manufacturers, restaurants, food service companies, and retail establishments. You may have seen our popular brands Butcher Boy, Nature’s Secret, and Sorrento’s on store shelves. Each year, our facilities produce close to 800 million pounds of oil—that’s more than two-and-a-half million pounds per day. 

Learn more about Columbus Vegetable Oils here.

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