Last night at dinner, my partner was telling me about a story on NPR that afternoon. I was sure I hadn't heard it, yet it felt so terribly, completely familiar, as if I had not only heard it once before, but a million times.
The NPR story was titled, "Your Olive Oil May Not Be The Virgin It Claims." Maybe it sounds a little familiar to you, too:
The next time you reach for a bottle of extra-virgin olive oil, beware. A new study from the University of California- Davis claims more than two-thirds of random samples of imported so-called extra-virgin olive oil don't make the grade.
To be extra-virgin, olive oil can't be rancid or doctored with lesser oils... many of the 14 major brands failed certain tests.
"It's become a very sophisticated practice, the adulteration of olive oil throughout the world," Shoemaker says. He says the lab can prove defects, degradation and dilution in olive oil beyond what human taste buds can figure out. The lab testing zeroes in on specific flaws.
There's never been a legal definition in the U.S. for any grade of olive oil, but mounting concern over truth-in-olive-oil-labeling has drawn in the USDA, and new American regulations will conform to international standards. Starting in October, olive oil from every olive oil-producing country, including America, will be subject to random sampling off retail shelves.
So, many olive oils say they're virgin or even -- golly! -- extra virgin. But via intensive scientific testing of the virginity of said olives and their oil, it appears a considerable number of olive oils are and have not been the virgins they claim .
This is hardly surprising: there's a whole lot of pressure to be an extra-virgin, after all. People pay more for you. You have a better reputation. You have a status other, lesser, oils don't get to have...well, unless they make the claim anyway, maybe knowing they're not really virgins, or maybe feeling like your definition of what makes an extra-virgin just isn't the same as theirs.
And what happens when you get caught in your fib or questionable claim? You get get called out in public, for the whole world to see who really is and who really isn't. Your proverbial bedsheet is laid out, perhaps without the tell-take chartreuse stain it should have, flying in the wind for all the neighbors to gasp and cackle at while you shrivel in shame.
The news shocks! It infuriates! Where do these trampy olives and those who financially benefit from them get off claiming a status that rightfully only belongs to the purest of fruit? People paid extra for that purity they wanted: they were robbed! What has this done to the value of the actual virgin and her super-powered sister, the extra-virgin? Why did she even bother maintaining her purity when she could have been slutting around with all those other low-rent olives?
Disappointed users of some, if not all, of these now-proven-corrupt oils say they liked them, even loved them, and felt so, so certain they were as chaste as they claimed. They feel cuckolded, betrayed, cheated, played. Some oils who failed the scientific tests passed the taste tests just fine -- but how, HOW could that be?
Arguments erupt! Tempers flare! Were the tests flawed? Was the claim that virgin olives were so much better than other olives a farce all along? The bleeding hearts defend: were some of the not-so-virgin oils merely judged unfairly, denied the virgin stamp because they were "simply old, badly stored, or [something else besides] impure?" The bitter cynics scoff: olive oil has always been "adulterated," all through history, and was never "pure," they say. The justice-minded call for a legal intervention in order to stop the appalling charade of non-virgins in their briny tracks from here on out.
This comment sits, rather quietly, quite by itself, in this sea of confusion, heartbreak and fury:
This is absolutely silly. There is no legal definition for "extra virgin." It's merely a marketing term. What actually goes into an "extra virgin" olive oil is entirely meaningless and up to the olive oil manufacturers. If you don't like the flavor of a particular brand of extra virgin olive oil, then don't buy it. We're not talking about something like adulterated gasoline where a false octane might actually cause damage. This isn't a truth-in-advertising case when the phrase "extra virgin" is simply a marketing ploy to begin with. It's a bit like regulating what constitutes the true volume of a "venti" cup at Starbucks. Who cares? If you don't like it, buy someone else's olive oil. Simple."
Sage words about virginity standards, those... erm, beg pardon. About olives. Sage words about olives.