The world of Italian olive oil never ceases to confirm my best, and worst, suspicions. When I taste olive oil made by honest Italian growers and millers, I’m often amazed by its freshness and complexity – and even more amazed that they are still in business. The single-minded devotion of these food artisans, who built Italy’s culinary fame, is almost superhuman when you consider how consistently they’re being undercut by olive oil crooks, and abandoned by their own government. In fact, forces within the Italian government often help the crooks.
Recent events make all this grotesquely clear. The last few months have been unusually packed with allegations of fraud, subterfuge, mystery and government double-dealing.
In November of 2015, Raffaele Guariniello, an investigative magistrate in Turin, announced that he is investigating the producers of seven brands of olive oil – Antica Badia, Bertolli, Carapelli, Coricelli, Primadonna, Santa Sabina and Sasso – for fraud and misleading labeling. (Useful coverage in Italian here and here, and in English here and here.) Carabinieri agents specializing in food fraud bought these and other oils in Italian supermarkets, and sent them for testing to the laboratory of the Agenzia delle Dogane, a nationally and internationally accredited sensory and chemical testing lab run by the Italian Customs Agency. Here, official testers determined that some oils of the brands in question had falsely been labeled “extra virgin,” when in fact they were lower-grade oils. These are some of the historic and best-known brands in Italian olive oil, though of course they haven’t been Italian-owned, or contained much Italian oil, for many years now. Bertolli, Carapelli and Sasso are controlled by CVC Capital Partners, a private equity firm headquartered in Luxembourg, through that company’s ownership position in Deoleo, the Spanish food conglomerate. Primadonna and Antica Badia are private label brands for two major supermarket chains, Lidl and Eurospin, respectively. Coricelli and Santa Sabina are bottled by prominent Italian oil industrialists, the Umbria-based Pietro Coricelli and Colavita Spa in Lazio, who deal widely in imported oil.
Italians call non-news like this la scoperta dell’acqua calda (“the discovery of hot water”). Time and again, we’ve been told that leading brands are passing off low-grade oil as extra virgin quality. We've heard it from top universities (see UC Davis reports here, here and here), consumer publications (Consumer Reports in 2012 and the National Consumer League in 2014), and individuals. Time and again we’ve heard that these products are made by blending other people’s oil - most famous brands are empty names, whose owners almost never own olive trees or make oil themselves, and whose real connection to Italy disappeared decades ago. We've read about the high-volume oil traders they buy from being investigated for dirty tricks. The only real novelties in the Turin case is that Italian authorities have finally started taking samples at supermarkets – the scene of many olive oil crimes – and that prosecutors are actually naming and shaming the accused companies in their press releases (in the past these companies would have been obliquely mentioned as “well-known Italian brands,” or similar). So the excellent Legge Mongiello, the so-called “Save Italian Olive Oil” law passed in late 2013, is beginning to take effect.
In early December, 2015, still bigger news broke. A hundred military police officers in Puglia, acting on orders from anti-mafia investigators, executed search and seizure warrants at olive oil companies that revealed the existence of 7,000 tons of dubious oil. (See here, here and here in Italian, and here in English.) Though marked as “100% Italian,” prosecutors allege that much of the oil was imported from Syria, Turkey, Tunisia and Morocco. They are tight-lipped at the moment, but according to my sources, the companies involved in their investigation include the Gruppo Marseglia from Monopoli (whose previous olive oil activities I cover in my book Extra Virginity, where I describe my lunch with the company’s captivating founder and capo, Leonardo Marseglia); Pantaleo Nicola Spa based in Fasano; and the Azienda Olearia Locorriere in Grumo Appula; as well as an internationally-known food-testing laboratory based in Monopoli. (Each of these organizations that chose to comment on the investigation has proclaimed its innocence.) Turns out that similar activities, on a smaller scale, were discovered during another investigation in Puglia led by Antonio Savasta, a magistrate in Trani, a case nicknamed “Olio di Carta” (“Paper Oil”) for its characteristic use of false Italian production certificates to make imported oil look “100% Italian.” (See Italian and English coverage.) Investigators are still scrutinizing these 7,000 tons of oil, much of which appears to have been sold already in Italy, the USA and Japan; insiders say that the oil’s allegedly false provenance may not the only thing wrong with it. More as the story unfolds.
My sources also mention a family connection between one of these companies and a noted mafia figure in Bari. This may help to explain another interesting aspect of this investigation: that it’s being led by the Direzione Distrettuale Antimafia di Bari, an elite corps of prosecutors that specializes in fighting organized crime syndicates. As if to underscore the political clout of some of the accused, just before Christmas, members of the Italian Ministry of Agriculture, including the head of their investigative corps, tried to push through new legislation that would have de-criminalized the sale of fake “Made in Italy” olive oil, punishing it instead with a modest fine. Senator Colomba Mongiello and her allies blocked this attempted end run, at least for the moment – debate resumes in Parliament in late January. Perhaps I’m being cynical, but a sudden call for a “colpo di spugna” (“wipe the slate clean”) law on fake Made in Italy oil, so soon after 7,000 tons of the stuff turned up in Puglia, seems more than a coincidence. Exactly 7,000 tons more. (Key analysis here, in Italian.)
Speaking of bizarre coincidences that may not be coincidental, prosecutors apparently opened this investigation while following another trail of suspected wrongdoing, which involves a mysterious bacterial infection of olive trees, xylella fastidiosa, blamed for the mass die-offs of olive trees that have been observed in Puglia over the last several years. This sounds like a left turn, I know, but bear with me, because it all hangs together (I think . . .).
When news of xylella hit in 2013, I immediately thought: Scam. In Puglia, ancient olive trees are protected by law from being cut down or otherwise removed. As you can imagine, this law has been unpopular with certain businesses, like real estate developers and road-builders. The areas affected by xylella were, by strange chance, extraordinarily beautiful landscapes – ripe for posh new hotels. The emergency plan which a handful of authorities drew up shortly after the announcement of the xylella epidemic in Puglia was trenchant: cut down all the infected trees, along with a goodly number of their neighbors in case they too had been blighted. Ecco fatto: suddenly there would be more elbow (or hotel) room in several lovely seaside locales in Puglia.
Which of course is only one interpretation of the facts. On the other hand, I'm no agronomist, and as reports of the seriousness of the xylella infection echoed in the press, I began to think I'd jumped to a hasty and cynical conclusion. (For more views on the xylella story, see this independent blog.) Developments over the last few months, however, suggest I may have been right all along. A 2015 report on mafia infiltration of Italian agriculture, written by a team led by the renowned anti-mafia prosecutor Gian Carlo Caselli, dedicated a 9-page sub-chapter to what it called “The Strange Case of Xylella Fastidiosa,” echoing Robert Louis Stevenson’s novella of Jekyll and Hyde. The report noted that xylella broke out shortly after an international agronomy conference had been held in Bari in 2010, though the infection appeared not in olive trees near Bari, but in the Gallipoli area – precisely where hordes of troublesome grandfather trees were holding up plans for a perfectly lovely new mega-resort. Cue yet another criminal investigation: in mid-December, prosecutors led by Cataldo Motta, chief magistrate in Lecce, charged ten agronomists and other public “experts” who’d launched the xylella jihad with a range of misdeeds, among which are spreading plant disease, making false official statements, and destroying and disfiguring natural landscapes. (Italian and English.) The Lecce prosecutors also blocked further eradication of ancient olive trees, at least for the time being.
A mysterious plant disease, a suspect legal maneuver, anti-mafia investigators stumbling into 7,000 tons of fishy olive oil, famous oil brands accused once more of passing off low-grade product as the Real McCoy . . . all this probably sounds bizarre and irrelevant, especially if you live outside Italy. But if you eat olive oil that flies an Italian or Californian or Greek or Spanish or South African or any other flag, these cases concern you. In fact, if you eat any food that you’re not growing yourself, listen up. Sometimes criminals, even mafiosi, earn good money by making and selling bad food. Italy is spending tens of millions of dollars a year to promote “Made in Italy” products worldwide, yet some officials seem little concerned to ensure that the goods in question are clean, or even Italian. And in reality, Italy is doing a far better job than most other nations at fighting food corruption. The unseemly spectacle of fraud that’s playing out right now in Puglia, Turin and Rome also happens in countless other foods in other countries, where no prosecutor, police investigator or politician raises a hand, word of the shenanigans never gets out, and business continues as usual.
The battle now being fought in Italy over olive oil is part of a larger world war over food authenticity. At stake is every consumer’s right to know the basics of what they eat: where your food comes from, who made it, what’s in it.