MICHELE NORRIS, host:
Well, it turns out you can't always judge a bottle of olive oil by its label, especially if that label claims to be Italian extra-virgin olive oil. Journalist Tom Mueller explains why in this week's New Yorker magazine. He's with us now from Evitzi(ph), San Filippo, Italy. So glad you're with us.
Mr. TOM MUELLER (Correspondent, New Yorker Magazine): Thank you.
NORRIS: You, in the article, say that if you see "extra-virgin olive oil" on the label that you need to be very wary. It could be something else entirely. What else might it be?
Mr. MUELLER: Well, there are various types of misleading and fraud going on. The simplest kind is simple substitution with cheap seed oils - soybean oil, sunflower seed oil, canola oil, and that sort of thing. And that's typically kind of a mom-and-pop fraud operation when people rent a warehouse, blend and bottle, and sell their fake oils very, very quickly, sometimes in two or three days, and then disappear before the investigators can track them down. And you'll see labels with Italian flags and images of Mount Vesuvius and folksy names of imaginary producers - the Ancient Millstones or Farmhouse and so on.
NORRIS: And all of this is happening because extra-virgin olive oil has become quite valuable, quite coveted?
Mr. MUELLER: That's right. The real stuff is not only delicious, but also has some remarkable health characteristics that in the last five or six years have been recognized by some pretty reputable sources. And yet, it's very easy to fake. There are also high-tech frauds, which use hazelnut oil and other kinds of processed olive oil that are very difficult to detect chemically. But all this can be fairly easily determined by a skilled taste-test panel. And that in fact is something that has been put into EU law precisely for the purpose of determining what is extra virgin and what is not.
NORRIS: Well, there's also chemical tests that they can use.
Mr. MUELLER: There are chemical tests, yes. But the chemical tests fall short of determining certain percentages of hazelnut oil or certain low-grade olive oil that's been deodorized with sophisticated refining processes.
NORRIS: So even though they have the taste test, is it possible to make the fake stuff actually pass the taste test?
Mr. MUELLER: It's very, very difficult. And at the end of the day, if they were good enough to do that, they'd be spending so much time and money that they might as well give you the real thing. In a way, one of the biggest frauds of all is the false classification. Extra virgin, according to law, means or really should mean absolutely premium grade, something like Grand Cru in wine. But in fact, taste test is very, very rarely applied and at the end of the day a great deal of actual olive oil is sold under the extra-virgin label that simply is not.
NORRIS: Is this a problem also in Italy if we were to buy olive oil there at the local market?
Mr. MUELLER: Yes. One has to be aware of who has produced this oil. In fact, my neighbors, when they go to their mill, they watch very carefully when their olives are dumped into the hopper and ground, and don't leave until they collect their oil.
NORRIS: So for all of the foodies here in the United States who've been plunking down top dollars thinking they've been buying extra-virgin olive oil, is it possible that they've never really had the real thing?
Mr. MUELLER: It is very possible. This is a very, very clear distinction between an intensely fresh squeezed fruit juice and something that tastes slightly rancid.
NORRIS: So once you've had it, you know from then on.
Mr. MUELLER: You know from then on, absolutely.
NORRIS: Well, Tom Mueller, thanks so much for talking to us.
Mr. MUELLER: Thank you.
NORRIS: That was Tom Mueller. He's working on a book about the olive oil industry called "Extra Virginity: A Cultural and Criminal History of Olive Oil."