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US Consumers Paying More for Extra Virgin Olive Oil That May be Anything But

Jul 19, 2010 | Parker Waichman LLP

Just because an olive oil is labeled “extra virgin” doesn’t mean it is, according to researchers at UC Davis. They tested a variety of extra virgin olive oils made by Bertolli, Pompeian, Carapelli, Mezzetta, and Mazola and others, and found that more than two-thirds bearing the extra-virgin label didn’t meet international or pending US standards.

Extra virgin is the highest grade of olive oil, according to standards set by the U. S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the International Olive Council, an international, intergovernmental organization that deals with issues involving olives and olive oil.

To bear the label “extra virgin”, olive oil has to be cold-processed to prevent degradation of aromatic compounds and has higher levels of healthful fats and antioxidants. It also has relatively low acidity levels — 0.8 grams per 100 grams or less.

Extra virgin olive oil can be adulterated by mixing it with cheaper refined oils such as hazelnut oil or with a cheaper refined olive oil, making the adulteration more difficult to chemically detect.

For some time now, many have suspected that much of the extra virgin olive oil marketed in the US was anything but that. The UC Davis study, the first of its kind by an American academic institution, provides the first empirical proof of this deception.

To conduct their study, researches at UC Davis purchased 14 imported brands and five California-produced brands of olive oil that were being sold as extra virgin at retail stores in California. Three bottles of each imported brand and two bottles of each California brand were sent to the Australian Oils Research Laboratory in New South Wales, where the oils were put through sensory and chemical tests specified by the international Olive Council and also were analyzed using methods adopted in Germany and Australia. Chemical analyses also were conducted at the UC Davis Olive Oil Chemistry Laboratory, in most cases using bottles with the same lot numbers as those tested in Australia

The research team found that 69 percent of the imported oils sampled and 10 percent of the California-produced oils sampled failed to meet internationally accepted standards for extra virgin olive oil.

This type of mislabeling could be costing consumers a bundle, as olive oil labeled extra virgin is considered a premium product. According to a report in The Los Angeles Times, in one California grocery store, a 750-milliliter bottle of Bertolli’s extra-virgin olive oil cost $14.29, while the same-size bottle of Bertolli’s extra-light olive oil cost $7.99. Overall, US consumers spend $700 million a year on olive oil labeled extra virgin.

While federal law bars a company from not disclosing on the label that it is selling a blend of oils, the Los Angeles Times said it is technically legal for companies to mark lower-quality olive oil as top-end. There are no federal rules that define what “virgin” or “extra-virgin” olive oil. The USDA standards, which are set to go into effect in October, are only voluntary.

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