Interview – Tom Mueller – Author of Extra Virginity: The Sublime and Scandalous World of Olive Oil

Extra Virgin Olive Oil (EVOO). It might not be a food product that you buy everyday, but when you buy it, it is quite expensive so you want to “the real deal”. But, far from every EVOO product on the shelf at the supermarket is actually a EVOO. Meaning, that some are of lesser quality (low-grade oils), not from the country of labelling (olives from greece, but the label says Italy) and so forth.

I used EVOO as an example in my thesis on how a new technology, blockchain, could reestablish trust, transparency and traceability in the supply chain of EVOO. And that is highly needed, especially if you (if your Danish), saw Kontant on DR last night, where they investigated Danish distributors and a Italian producer. So in relation to that, I have interviewed Tom Mueller, who has extensive knowledge about EVOO and the fraud that happens before the products are on the shelfs. So without further ado:

Can you start with telling us a little bit about yourself?

I’m Tom Mueller. I am a free-lance writer of non-fiction and fiction. I was educated at Oxford (DPhil, Rhodes Scholar), Harvard (BA, summa cum laude), and Alief Hastings High School in rural east Texas, home of the Fighting Bears. I’ve lived or worked in 48 countries.

My first book, Extra Virginity, is a New York Times best-selling account of olive oil culture, history, and crime. My articles have appeared in the New YorkerNational Geographic MagazineNew York Times Magazine and Atlantic Monthly.

What work have you done in relation to EVOO?

Truth about EVOO was born out of my love of great olive oil, and my concern about low-grade oils being passed off as “extra virgin” in the industry today, worldwide.  As a freelance writer who for the last two decades has spent much time in and around the Mediterranean, while contributing to publications including the New Yorker, Atlantic Monthly, National Geographic, and New York Times Magazine, I felt I knew olive oil well.  But it took an assignment for the New Yorker in 2007, “Slippery Business,” to make me understand the remarkable complexity of the olive oil trade, and the immense value of olive oil itself.  Since then I’ve gone steadily deeper into oil; in 2012 I published Extra Virginity, a book that explores this great foodstuff from many angles – cultural, culinary, chemical, criminal – and introduces the artisan producers and age-old landscapes of fine olive oil.

Why does fraud happen along EVOO’s supply chain?

The fraudulent behavior comes from everywhere – from misrepresenting amounts of olives brought to the mill, to various games that are played in the milling process, to blending of higher-grade extra virgin olive oil with low-grade olive oil or with other cheaper vegetable oils, to mislabeling . . .  The list is endless, as is the ingenuity of the fraudsters.

Why is it important for, us as a consumer, to have knowledge about this fraudulent behavior?

First, to ensure you are eating a healthy, tasty and genuine product, whose origin you know. Second, to make sure that honest producers get a fair price for their product – or find a market at all (they are often excluded by low-priced, fraudulent oils). Third, that you aren’t supporting fraudsters when you buy a bottle of oil.

From your knowledge, what can be done to increase traceability and transparency of EVOO products?

It is crucial to do on-site inspections and tests of mills, refineries and storage facilities, especially in ports.  So many checks are on paperwork only, not chemical testing of oils. The chemical and sensory parameters of the extra virgin grade also have to be improved (tightened) – they are currently very loose. Labels should specify the exact geographic location where olives were grown and milled, and the exact name of the producers – too often the “brand” is simply a multinational that buys and blends other peoples’ oils.

Further on that note, do you think tech can help with increasing traceability and transparency of EVOO products? And how?

Steady scientific advances in infra-red, DNA and other testing of olive oil have appeared. These need to be incorporated, rapidly, into current legislation.

What are your tips and tricks to spot that the EVOO you buy, is in fact what it is?

That is very hard to state, because there are many factors that comes into play. But I have outlined some points below, and if you want more thorough tips and tricks go to my website here.

  • Olives are stone fruits, like cherries and plums.  So real EVOO is fresh-squeezed fruit juice – seasonal, perishable, and never better than the first few weeks it was made.
  • Bitterness and pungency are usually indicators of an oil’s healthfulness. Sweetness and butteriness are often not.
  • There are 700+ different kinds of olives, which make thousands of different kinds of oil. Asking “what’s the best olive oil?” is like asking “what’s the best wine?”  The answer is, “depends on what you’re eating it with.”
  • Know the when, who, where of your oil: When it was made (harvest date), who made it (specific producer name), and exactly where on the planet they made it.

A big thank you to Tom, for his insights on this widely loved product across the globe, and why we need to keep pushing for better traceability and transparency of food products, in general.

If you want to read or know about my work on creating better traceability and transparency with tech, read this post, where I state the current supply chain process of EVOO, and how blockchain can shift the supply chain towards more transparency of the food we eat, and how farmers, producers, retailers etc, can get better traceability.

Have a great day!

© 2018 Kristoffer Just Petersen

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