A number of positive steps in the fight against worldwide olive oil fraud have happened over the past few years:
- Canada’s Food Inspection Agency sought and won convictions against four importers of fraudulent product, putting other unscrupulous distributors on notice that Canada would not tolerate any business that tries to bamboozle consumers.
- Australia put new standards into place to strengthen authenticity in its own marketplace in 2011. The ensuing media visibility created immediate retailer impact, with stores pulling products off the shelves overnight.
- The United States established revised definitions for olive oil products and a USDA certification program in 2010 that has yet to be used by any producer. A handful of individual states have enacted their own olive oil labeling laws but they have not yet been tested in court.
Unfortunately, the efforts in the United States have not stemmed the tide of counterfeit products pouring into the country. This appears to be the result of resource-strapped government agencies, a low priority for any food product not likely to create a widespread consumer health risk, and labeling laws that are easy to circumvent.
The USDA and the FDA both take part in combating distribution of fraudulent food. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) is not an enforcement agency for olive oil. It defines standards, serves as an inspection agency and offers a voluntary certification program. The key organization responsible for true enforcement of the USDA’s food labeling laws and consumer product safety is the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA). After months of requesting information from the FDA, Sebastian Cianci, FDA spokesperson, provided some answers to questions about his agency’s current activity.
- What is the FDA’s role in supporting the revised USDA standards for proper labeling of olive oil offered for sale to U.S. consumers?
The USDA standards are voluntary grade standards. They are not FDA standards of identity or U.S. requirements “for proper labeling of olive oil offered for sale to US consumers.” [See United States Standards for Grades of Olive Oil and Olive-Pomace Oil (October 25, 2010) ]. USDA Grade standards specify what characteristics must be present for a product to be labeled as “U.S. ______”, the blank being filled in with a specific term. The specific grades defined in the voluntary standard are “U.S. Extra Virgin Olive Oil”, “U.S. Virgin Olive Oil”, “U.S. Virgin Olive Oil Not Fit For Human Consumption Without Further Processing” (sometimes designated as “U.S. Lampante Virgin Olive Oil”), “U.S. Olive Oil”, “U.S. Refined Olive Oil”, “U.S. Olive-Pomace Oil”, “U.S. Refined Olive-Pomace Oil”, and “U.S. Crude Olive-Pomace Oil”. Before a firm can use the USDA mark or defined terms, they must pay a fee to USDA to actually grade the product. If a firm misuses the USDA mark or defined terms, USDA can take action against them. Additionally, fraudulent use of the USDA mark or defined terms would be false or misleading labeling and would misbrand the product under the Federal Food Drug and Cosmetic Act. In that case, FDA could take action as well.
The terms “extra virgin”, “virgin”, etc. without the use of the term “U.S.” are not a representation that the olive oil meets the USDA voluntary Grade Standards for the defined terms. These descriptive terms without the term “U.S.” are also defined in several international standards which differ from the US Grade Standards. The US has not adopted these terms as mandatory labeling requirements and, without the “U.S,” the terms have not been defined.
- Have there been any actions taken against importers/distributors/marketers of fraudulently or mislabeled olive oil since the revised standards went into effect?
FDA has not taken actions against olive oil since the revised standards went into effect. We do not know if USDA has taken any action against olive oil for violating their grade certification mark.
(Editor’s Note: The USDA confirmed that there have been no requests for participation in their certification program, so there would be no potential for taking action.)
- What process initiates an FDA investigation into fraudulently or mislabeled olive oils?
FDA may initiate an investigation into fraudulent or mislabeled products based on information it has gathered on its own or which it has received from other sources. We receive information from consumers, industry, foreign governments, and other sources. If the information provides enough information to allow FDA to perform meaningful follow-up, we will do so if our resources permit.
- What are the steps consumers can take to request FDA action against retailers/marketers (brands) that distribute fraudulently labeled olive oil products in the U.S.?
Anyone who has evidence that a product is misbranded or otherwise in violation of the Federal, Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act can contact the FDA.
- Is the FDA’s process similar to the one followed by the CFIA in Canada? Is independent or random testing done on imported or domestic olive oil products sold on U.S. grocery shelves?
FDA does not have a routine testing program for authenticity of domestic or imported olive oil. Occasionally, FDA may test olive oil but the usual process is to respond to complaints. Some trade associations do routine testing on olive oil on store shelves and notify FDA when they find fraudulent product.
- The CFIA in Canada successfully prosecuted at least three importers/distributors of fraudulently-labeled olive oil in 2010 and one in 2011. Are there any completed or pending cases that the FDA is involved with for the same issues?
In 2007, FDA seized food labeled as Extra Virgin Olive Oil and Pomace Olive Oil valued at approximately $628,000. FDA analyses showed that soybean oil had been substituted wholly in part for the olive oil and olive pomace oil.
- What are the potential resulting actions (dollar fines, confiscation of fraudulent shipments, or business restrictions against future operations) if an importer/distributor/marketer is found guilty of fraudulently or mislabeling products?
The Federal Food Drug and Cosmetic Act (The Act) provides authority to seize adulterated or misbranded olive oil that is in domestic commerce or, if the product is being offered for import, to detain it and refuse admission if it is offered for entry into the US. The Act also provides authority to criminally prosecute individuals and corporations who put adulterated or misbranded foods into interstate commerce with corresponding fines and/or imprisonment. An importer can be debarred from importing any food if the importer has been convicted of a felony for conduct relating to the importation into the United States of any food.
- What assurances can U.S. consumers count on that the olive oil products they purchase (and generally pay a premium for) are properly labeled to reflect true content?
The US and Europe have aggressive trade associations that monitor olive oil in the marketplace and police the products of their own membership to assure that the olive oil on the store shelves conform to the International Olive Oil Standard of the International Olive Council (IOC). These trade associations often share complaints or findings from their own testing, with FDA. Any time FDA encounters fraudulent product, consumers can be assured that FDA will take appropriate steps to remove it from the market place.
- Does the FDA see any trends in this area? Less fraudulent products coming into the U.S. because of the revised USDA standards?
Since these are not mandatory requirements, FDA has no observations or correlations to make with respect to the USDA Voluntary Grade Standards. We are not aware of any product that has been graded by USDA up to this time.
- Does the FDA’s approach to protecting consumers from fraudulent olive oil differ in any way from other food product categories they protect?
FDA follows up on any credible reports of fraudulent foods and, when FDA does find them, FDA takes action to remove fraudulent products from the food supply.
A CONCLUDING OPINION
It appears that the opening question, “Can the FDA have an impact on olive oil fraud?”, can be answered in a few simple words: at the moment, not likely. And the those pesky caveats “meaningful follow-up” and “if resources permit” suggest that olive oil may not be high enough on the FDA’s list to change this answer anytime soon.
Understandably, a program of routine testing is an expensive proposition for any resource-strapped organization. Even Canada’s CFIA acknowledges they are only able to conduct about 100 random tests per year. But when big money is at stake, temptations run high. Trade associations may conduct independent testing, but they are not industry watchdogs. Relying on these organizations to pick up the slack is a bit like asking the fox to guard the hen house.
This week, the industry can be grateful to Tom Mueller for his new book, Extra Virginity, which will help shine another light on this ongoing problem. But for the foreseeable future, the ultimate answer is that producers and retailers will still be required to self-police the effort and consumers will still pay premium prices for inferior product. There will not be a solution to the problem until the industry, the retailer and the consumer all take part in a groundswell to help drive impostors out of the olive oil business.
On the bright side, the FDA has offered a clear path for action. “If anyone has evidence that a product is misbranded or otherwise in violation of the Federal, Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act, they can contact the FDA." You can find contact information at the FDA website.
Let’s hope plenty of people make use of that link.