With Italy being the second largest producer of olive oil in the world – Spain is the first – it's no wonder the news on Wednesday that seven well-known Italian producers are being probed for allegedly doctoring the unrefined 'extra virgin' oil hit a nerve.
But how easy is it for consumers to spot the fake stuff from the real deal?
“It is very difficult to tell the difference between virgin and extra virgin olive oil,” Rolando Manfredini, a quality manager for Coldiretti, the Italian Farmers' Association, told The Local, insisting that one of the main factors is price.
“The main reason companies are faking the oil in the first place is because making extra virgin olive oil is very costly and time consuming.”
Typically, extra virgin olive oil sells for about 30-40 percent more than other varieties, a fact which is crucial when making choices at the supermarket.
Manfredini and his colleagues at Coldiretti recommend that any extra-virgin oil being sold for less than €7 should set alarm bells ringing.
But price isn't the only indicator. Indeed, some of the more expensive oils implicated in the scandal have long enjoyed the respect of consumers – so what can be done?
“Customers must be more vigilant when looking at labels, which can help them choose a genuine product,” Manfredini said.
At the high-end delicatessen Alimentari Placidi in central Rome, food savvy Italians fill their baskets with what they hope are quality products.
But do they read the labels?
“I always read the labels and choose an oil that's made with 100 percent Italian olives,” said 42-year-old shopper Irene.
A common way companies dupe customers is by mixing Italian extra virgin olive oil with inferior oils from different countries, and then writing 'extra virgin' on the bottle.
“If you see that's the case steer clear,” Irene warned.
“I also check labels to see if the olives were harvested in the last year,” she added, explaining that oil is a fresh product and its quality deteriorates quickly as it ages more than a year.
Perhaps Italy's gourmand shoppers can choose a good oil by reading the labels, but 51-year old delicatessen owner Paolo Castelli said that even his expert eye had failed to spot a fake extra virgin.
“I didn’t know anything about the scandal,” he said.
“It’s very embarrassing and I’m worried that customers will think we knew. We select brands to stock based on how well they sell, and have in the past stocked some of the brands that are accused of wrongly labeling their products.”
EU law requires all olive oil labelled as extra virgin to undergo a stringent taste and aroma tests, but in spite of rigid controls, inferior oils still manage to pass themselves off as extra virgin.
According to 38-year-old Italian chef Matteo Luchetta, customers should still be able to spot a true extra virgin oil thanks to its unmistakeable fruity flavour and aroma.
“Olives are a fruit, so good olive oil needs to strike a balance between fruitiness and bitterness. A poor oil will leave a lingering, slightly sour taste.”
Luchetta lamented the rise of cheap, low-quality industrial oils, warning that if consumers were't careful the wonderful flavour of real Italian olive oil could soon be lost forever.
“If we accept imitations we risk becoming accustomed to the taste of these oils and might even start to enjoy them more than the real thing.”
But the chef insisted quality olive oil would remain a key ingredient in Italian cuisine, “luckily Italians are still quite good at telling the difference.”
By Ellie Bennett and Patrick Browne