It has been a fascinating six months since Extra Virginity was published last December. During this time I’ve traveled almost constantly on four continents, and seen olive oil ferment everywhere. Awareness is growing: more and more consumers understand that fine olive oil is among the healthiest and best-tasting foods on the planet, and that it’s fresh-squeezed fruit juice – a seasonal, perishable product. They’re also starting to realize that they’re being systematically cheated: that most “extra virgin” olive oil is actually an inferior substance without the taste and health benefits of the real thing. That sometimes their “olive oil” isn’t made from olives at all.
During my travels, I saw a few public officials start to recognize these problems. In January, at a hearing at the California State Senate organized by Senator Lois Wolk, I joined a number of oil producers, merchants and authorities to testify about the need to reform in olive oil in America, and to name several companies actively engaged in oil fraud. Four months later, in Australia, I watched a popular protest by oil-makers on the Parliament lawn in Canberra draw senators out to see what the fuss was about; one of them, Senator John Williams, later delivered an impassioned speech in Parliament defending great olive oil in Australia, and demanding a government crackdown. Meanwhile, across the Atlantic, the EU Agriculture Commissioner was reputedly planning major reforms in the olive oil sector (here), while my ever-growing correspondence with oil experts and top growers around the Mediterranean reminded me of the enormous skill and knowledge in olive oil’s heartland. In the US, growers in several states proposed a federal marketing order (here), which aimed to set, and to enforce, more stringent chemical standards.
All this has been inspiring. Yet now, back home after six months on the olive oil trail, I’m starting to ask what has actually been accomplished. And at least as far as fighting oil fraud is concerned, what I see is a series of broken promises and false dawns. Six months after the California Senate hearing, the olive oil fraudsters we named continue to operate with impunity. The pledges by Senator Williams and other Australian officials to safeguard quality oil in their country have proved empty – the government has a list of substandard oils, yet leaves them on the shelves. The ballyhooed EU reform has turned out to be a dud which has brought no major changes, and positive movements like the federal marketing order in the US are being obstructed by Big Oil lobbyists, in partnership with ignorant, or complicit, politicians.
One thing is clear to me: we can’t wait for the public servants, anywhere in the world, to fix this mess. To achieve justice in olive oil as rapidly as possible, we have to drive the process ourselves – to create a new model for engagement with olive oil companies, consumers and the public sector. Over the last six months, I’ve been stunned by the number of emails, blog comments, phone calls, FB and Twitter communications I’ve received, from thousands of people asking about olive oil, suggesting an excellent one I’d missed from my list of great oils, or asking my views on a suspicious oil. Experts in a range of fields – chemistry, advertising, the law, media, food science, internet data mining, and a dozen others – have offered their services to the cause. I’ve come to see that there’s a silent army of potential olive oil activists out there, ready to act.
It’s time for us all to act. To this purpose, Truth in Olive Oil is evolving from basic information on oil to something more incisive. As a start, I’ll be tackling three major projects:
Citizen Oil Activism – I’ll be asking for help from everyone interested in joining the cause of olive oil quality, on work including:
- Local intelligence on oils good and bad in your area, including smart phone shots of your local shelves so we can start mapping the oils now available across North America.
- Methods for guiding/pushing your local authorities, store and restaurant managers, and other folks in a position to defend oil quality better.
- Professional advice in a range of fields, as we search for the best strategies to elevate great olive oil and expunge its rancid look-alikes – messaging, data, contacts, etc.
I’ll post a citizen’s olive oil manifesto soon – please chip in with comments below or an email, with your ideas for how to chart the straightest course to an olive oil revolution. Actions that are always honorable, yet eager, inventive, relentless. Outrage made coherent.
Targeted Testing – Since the FDA and other federal and state agencies claim they lack the resources to test olive oil quality and authenticity, Truth in Olive Oil is going to start test oil, and publishing the results. I have a long and ever-growing list of target olive oils, some of which you’ve been asking about on the website, others which, as an investigative journalist, I’ve heard about from people who work in the olive oil industry or have had on my radar for awhile now. As time and money allow, I’ll start testing their chemical and sensory properties at world-class laboratories, and reporting the results on this site. So keep those oil questions & suggestions coming.
Fresh Squeezed – Last but not least, a feature-length olive oil documentary is in the works! Together with a crack film crew, I’m making Fresh Squeezed, which captures the worldwide drama of olive oils both fine and foul, celebrates the sacred beauty and cultural richness of this age-old foodstuff, and shows the fight to make olive oil quality a basic consumer right. Here and there in the world, particularly in the olive oil trenches in Australia, I’ve been traveling with producer John Dunton-Downer and camera ninja Paul Jackson. Far from the conventional food documentary that reveals abuses and tells viewers what to think, our film aims in itself to become an agent of change: by showing how concerted citizen action coordinated through the web can improve oil quality for consumers, help honest oil producers to prosper, and compel lawmakers to act against fraud, Fresh Squeezed itself becomes a part of the movement, a prism which magnifies the focus on great oil. Expect to see a trailer here soon. We’ll also be asking you to video and send us your own olive oil stories – epiphanies, discoveries, news, great oily moments – for inclusion in the film.
There are many more initiatives underway. Ultimately, Truth in Olive Oil aims to become a gathering place for fellow olive oil lovers, who want to trigger a tipping point in olive oil quality. And this fight is bigger than olive oil alone – oil is merely the glistening, gorgeously green tip of a shadowy iceberg of food fraud. One of the great questions of our times is: Without corporate goodwill or effective government oversight, how do we ensure Truth in anything we eat? While we’re at it, how do we exact the Truth from the officials charged with protecting our food supply? If we find a way to fix olive oil, we’ll have a plan of attack for many future food fixes, a template for consumer-driven change. Working together, I believe we can demand – and achieve – Truth in Olive Oil.