by Tiffany Maleshefski
Counterfeit handbags and Burberry scarves are pretty easy to spot, mainly because some dude doubling as a street performer on Union Square is the one selling the goods. The other indicator, however, is that the heavily discounted Hermes bag you are considering buying is not sold in Hermes.
OK, class, that one was easy, right?
Well, what happens when the counterfeit product is sold in respectable stores, on an entirely respectable retail shelf, side-by-side with completely respectable and legitimate products?
It's a little more confusing, of course, and a heck of a lot more cunning.
For a couple of years now, enterprising crooks have been fooling American consumers with fraudulent incarnations of extra virgin olive oil; diluting the pure, unadulterated, stuff with soybean, hazelnut, and peanut oils, cheapo vegetable oils, and even lampante. Also known as "lamp oil," lampante is the term used to describe the oil squeezed from olives that have fallen from the tree. In other words, the crappy discarded stuff that's been mashed around in the ground a bit. The impure product is then labeled "EVOO" and sold at a heavily discounted price, usually more than half the price of its authentic competitors.
And especially in this economy, where the idea of buying $25 bottles of olive oil isn't incredibly appetizing, spying a huge jug of the stuff on the bottom shelf for the bargain-basement rate of $9.99 seems like one amazingly awesome deal.
Except, chances are it's probably not the real thing.
Fraud in the industry was, not surprisingly, a hot topic at the Feast of the Olives dinner that took place in Sonoma over the weekend. One of many events held to celebrate the county's three-month olive festival was a massive, seven-course feast at Ramekins, the cooking school / bed and breakfast in Sonoma, where olive oil fraud was the slippery topic of the evening.
The event shed some light on the importance of Senate Bill 634, which aims to get down on paper legal definitions for "virgin," "extra-virgin" and "olive pomace" oil, among other things. (You can read more about the bill here.) The bill will also sets about enforce regulations similar to those overseen by the International Olive Oil Council based in Spain.
Olives are Sonoma Valley's second largest crop after grapes; in fact, Napa and Sonoma counties are home to 150 olive oil producers and 375 olive tree growers throughout the state. It's still only 1 percent of the 70 million gallons of olive oil this country consumes each year, but domestic olive oil isn't the issues. See, when olive oil is imported into the U.S. it's not super high on the FDA's radar for purity testing. So? A lot of devious oils gets through.