In Defence of Liberty

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Golden Oil

The European Union is overseeing a darkening crisis, piqued with dawdling economic growth, common riots and painful youth unemployment. A low priority should be the minutiae of olive oil in restaurants. The European Commission, legislating across all member states, proposed olive oil should be presented to restaurant customers in small tamper-proof and non-refillable plastic bottles.

Olive oil is popular in many countries, and adulteration is surprisingly common. (Photo: Shishberg)

Olive oil is popular in many countries, and adulteration is surprisingly common. (Photo: Shishberg)

Olive oil is among the most adulterated agricultural products within the EU. Tom Mueller, author of Extra Virginity: The Sublime and Scandalous World of Olive Oil, heard from one investigator in the EU’s anti-fraud office that: “Profits were comparable to cocaine trafficking, with none of the risks.” Mislabelling is similarly common – less than 10% of world olive oil production meets the ‘extra-virgin’ criteria, but it is estimated over half of retail oil is sold with that label. Under the name of Operation Golden Oil in March 2007, Italian authorities tested olive oil from 757 producers: 205 of them illicitly blended or mislabelled their oils. A spokesperson for farmers’ union Coldiretti said: “Almost half the ‘Italian’ oil sold inside Italy is pressed from olives of an unknown provenance.”

Dilution can be deadly – in 1981, rapeseed oil in Spain was adulterated with aniline, a coal tar extract and industrial lubricant, causing nearly 700 deaths and over 25,000 poisonings. The uproarious trial, which lasted two years, acquitted 24 of the 37 accused persons, with the judges dismissing murder charges and sentencing one man to twenty years in jail.

Deceitful Dilution

Adulteration and mislabelling are types of fraud, but taskforces focus on frauds committed by farms and distributors, opposed to restaurateurs falsely topping up.  The mandate for small bottles would have increased packaging costs and plastic use, burdened smaller distributors and purchasers more than their larger rivals, whilst achieving no meaningful reduction in misselling, as the biggest deceits occur further up the distribution chain.

Dacian Ciolos, the EU Agriculture Commissioner, maintained restaurant-goers must know what they are drizzling, adding that in certain establishments “you will find a bottle labelled with a certain type of olive oil, but once the bottle is empty it’s topped up with other oil.” Mr Ciolos withdrew the proposal, after it attracted “universal” public outcry and perplexed reactions from governments, with Netherlands PM Mark Rutte calling the measure “too bizarre for words”.  Chief Secretary Danny Alexander labelled it “silly”, adding “silly rules are not the preserve of the European Union. We did them in local authorities.” Silly rules in local government affect fewer people than silly rules in political unions that cover 500m citizens.

Copa-Cogeca, a farmers’ lobbying group tempestuously claimed: “It is totally unacceptable that the Commission has done a complete U-turn and has succumbed to political pressure like this.” It is the job of lobbying groups to apply political pressure, and extraordinary they believe “universal” criticism should be ignored.

This directive was a uniform and bureaucratic solution to a tiny problem, where plurality from different national governments in tackling major olive oil fraud is more efficacious. The EU should learn restraint and stop interfering.

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