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Further Fraud Likely in Olive Oil Industry as Bacteria Continues to Spread

Olive oil production may suffer another set-back due to the steadily-increasing threat of the Xylella fastidiosa bacteria.

As well as contending with a poor harvest due to bad weather, Italian olive farmers in southern Puglia are suffering from the spread of the Xylella fastidiosa bacteria. Spread by insects and movement of infected plants, the bacteria has the power to decimate entire groves of olive trees, and spreads rapidly. For this reason, it is known to some as the ‘Ebola of the olive tree’. Like Ebola, there is no current cure.

The bacteria can lead to many symptoms that lead to the death of the tree, including leaf scorch and dehydration as water vessels are blocked. From October 2013 to April 2015, the disease had affected the whole Province of Lecce and was spreading further through Puglia, and had infected around 1 million trees at the beginning of the year.

It is thought that disease was introduced from endemic Costa Rica, although some olive farmers in Italy either consider the infection as a deliberate attempt by the government and scientists to make money, introduced by multinational corporations to sell pesticides and herbicides, or a problem caused by poor management of trees by large-scale companies – theories that many choose to believe in order to protect their livelihoods against government orders to destroy infected trees.

Between 2014 and 2016, it was determined that since the disease had spread so far north, eradication was no longer possible, and in 2015 a containment area was established in efforts to contain the infection. Several other countries have also detected Xylella since 2015, including France, Spain and Germany, with fears that these outbreaks may affect other olive groves as well as grape vines.

Olive oil producers rely on established groves to sell their high-grade and prized oil. Already known as one of the most adulterated and mislabelled products that can be bought on the shelves, the origin of olive oil carries a lot of weight, like wine. With Xylella’s slow spread upwards through Puglia, and more groves falling to the disease, there is a big concern that some suppliers or producers may adulterate or mislabel their oil in order to fill quotas – or take advantage of the rising prices to make a larger profit by stretching their production. Even with poor harvests, demand for olive oil doesn’t drop.

But how can suppliers protect their consumers from olive oil fraud?

The most common risks in olive oil are origin mislabelling, when suppliers buy in olives from outside countries, and adulteration with lower-grade oils, such as pomace oil. Isotope testing provides a way to distinguish between the countries of origin for olive oil, and also help to identify any dilution of premium oils with lower grade oils, even if they are from the same origin.

Olive oil may also be diluted with non-allowed oils, such as waste oil, mineral oil, or animal feed oil. With authenticity in mind, isotope testing should be able to detect the presence of any dilution through the different isotope signatures, and can then identify whether further investigation is needed.

Agroisolab is pleased to answer any questions that suppliers or consumers may have about olive oil risks and isotope testing. If you would like to know more about the various tests on olive oil that Agroisolab can offer, please visit our olive oil page.

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