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Olive oil scandal fires EU food safety doubts

By EARLE GALE in London | China Daily Global | Updated: 2023-12-06 09:23

A worker loads crates of olives onto a truck for transportation to an oil mill for processing, in Imperia, on Nov 3, 2023. [Photo/Agencies]

The safety of Europe's food was called into question this week when police in Italy and Spain seized contaminated cooking oil being sold as high-end products.

Around 5,000 liters of the adulterated counterfeit oil was seized in coordinated raids that led to the arrest of 11 people suspected of being part of an international criminal gang.

Spain's Guardia Civil, Italy's Carabinieri, and the European Union's law enforcement agency Europol centered the raids on olive oil factories in the Spanish provinces of Ciudad Real, Jaen, and Cordoba after the authorities inspected a truckload of cooking oil and found it to be defective.

Officers suspect the poor-quality oil was being sold globally as counterfeit high-end products.

The Guardia Civil said in a statement: "In Spain, they used a company that was linked to the acquisition of lower-category oils to make changes to cloudy and poor-quality oils, to turn them into virgin and extra virgin and then sell them by falsifying documents."

Investigators with Italy's Carabinieri found similar operations in Italy at two olive oil producing companies in the Tuscany region of northern Italy and on the island of Sicily.

"Eight simultaneous searches were carried out in Spain and Italy and 11 people were arrested," the statement said. "As a result of the searches, more than 5,200 liters of market-ready, adulterated olive oil has been seized, along with 91,000 euros ($98,600) in cash and four high-end vehicles. A number of bank accounts have also been blocked."

Europol added that it believes the production of counterfeit high-end olive oil is now common in Europe.

"A mix of various factors, such as the general inflation of prices, reduced olive oil production, and increasing demand, have created the perfect breeding ground for fraudulent producers," The Guardian newspaper quoted the agency as saying.

Europol said the operation allowed criminals to undercut legitimate producers and also cause "a public health risk". They said the low-grade oil that was the main ingredient of the operation was traditionally only used for oil lamps and is almost inedible.

Olive oil has become an expensive commodity in Europe this year after widespread droughts in Italy and Spain impacted harvests for a second successive year. Olive harvests have also been poor in other major oil-producing nations, including Greece, Portugal, Turkiye, and Morocco. As a result, worldwide production of olive oil is expected to fall to 2.4 million tons in 2023. The International Olive Council says global demand calls for 3 million tons.

Food safety in Europe was similarly highlighted in May 2021 when Spanish police and customs officers arrested 17 people for selling cheap imported saffron under the guise that it was a high-end Spanish product.

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