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Case study: tomatoes and olive oil - where do they come from?

In 2013 the Guardian newspaper reported that an Italian company was supplying the UK retailer Asda with a ‘Produced in Italy’ tomato sauce that was actually imported from China [1].

The case of the Chinese ‘Made in Italy’ tomato.

At the time EU regulations required labels to state the location where the tomato sauce was processed and packaged. Between 2012 and 2016, imports of tomato puree and concentrates from China to Italy amounted to 154 million euro (about 54%) [2]. Since regulations didn’t require labels to specify if the primary ingredient originated outside Europe, Italian firms could add water and salt to the imported Chinese tomato concentrate and sell it as Italian tomato sauce without breaking the law [3]. However, since the concentrate originated from outside Europe, it raised concerns among consumers about the level of mycotoxins, pesticides, additives, and colouring agents it might contain [2]. However, all imported food needs to comply with EU legislation when it’s imported and is subject to checks.

ungloved hands passing a bowl of tomatoes to someone else's gloved hands

Photo by Elaine Casap on Unsplash

Since 2018 it has been mandatory - where the label specifies the origin of a food product (eg, ‘produced in Italy’, flag references, etc) but that differs from the origin of the primary ingredient (eg, tomatoes from China) – for the label to also state the origin of this primary ingredient. A primary ingredient is one that represents more than 50% of the food [4]. A further EU regulation, which came into effect 1 April 2020, covers the implementation of this law - how to inform the consumer about ‘foreign’ primary ingredients, either by stating their origin or indicating that it’s different to that of the food [5]. For more information, see Step 1.12.

The case of the extra virgin olive oil fraud

Some products are subject to specific origin labelling regulations, for instance honey, fruit and vegetables, fish, meat and meat products, eggs and olive oil.

About 70% of the olive oil worldwide is produced in European countries [6] [7]. The authenticity of olive oils is an important issue in Europe and involves both composition and origin.

a cork-stoppered glass bottle containing yellow oil on a wooden table with black and green olives in the foreground

Photo by Roberta Sorge on Unsplash

Composition

Olive oil requires a label that specifies its quality grade. There are four categories:

  • extra virgin olive oil
  • virgin olive oil
  • olive oil composed of refined olive oils and virgin olive oils
  • olive-pomace oil.

The highest quality categories are extra virgin and virgin and both must comply with regulations relating to designations of origin [8]. ‘Designation of origin’ means reference to a geographical area on the label. ‘Protected designation of origin’ (PDO) and ‘Protected geographical indication’ (PGI) are ways of protecting the names of products that have a special link with their place of production or come from a particular geographical area [9]. (There’s more information on this in the next Step.)

In 2018 the National Food Crime Unit in the UK discovered a case of olive oil adulteration where oil from Spain was being sold (and priced) as ‘extra virgin’ in the UK but was actually a blend of 30% refined and 70% extra virgin oil [10].

In 2012 some Italian producers were found to have been blending Italian olive oil with cheaper oils imported from Spain, Greece, Morocco and Tunisia. And in 2016 Bertolli and Carapelli were found to be selling oil that didn’t meet the EU quality standards [11].

The EU takes fighting olive oil fraud very seriously and member states that produce it are required to guarantee that requirements are respected throughout the supply chain [7][12]. A new tool, BlockTac, has been developed to help cut the costs of this operation and is applicable to other foods too. It’s been used in Spain and is now available in UK, Poland and Bolivia. It uses a QR code to allow consumers to track the olive oil back along its supply chain all the way to its origin and check up on the details of its production [13].

OLEUM is an EU funded project aiming to better guarantee olive oil quality and authenticity by empowering detection and fostering prevention of olive oil fraud. This short video ‘Oleum: Better solutions to protect olive oil quality and authenticity’ explains more.

This is an additional video, hosted on YouTube.

For more information, take a look at the EUFIC website.

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Understanding Food Labels

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