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Italian Olive Oil, Caveat Emptor

This is a follow-up to the first section of the Baldaccini article where we promised that we would expand further on consumer olive oil issues. First, a few parameters to define the scope of this article. We are going to limit ourselves to the following:

1. Italian olive oil - there are undoubtedly some good olive oils produced in California, Spain and other places but for obvious reasons they don’t interest us. Having lived in California for ten years my personal opinion is that they don’t come close to the best Italian olive oils and that would apply to other countries too.

2. Extra virgin olive oil (EVO) - there is just no need to buy any olive oil that isn’t extra virgin so we’re not going to even discuss inferior, often chemically extracted, olive oils and we certainly don’t buy any ourselves.

3. Marketing tactics and labelling issues - we commented in the prior article on some of the illegal practices that came to light several years ago and won’t repeat them at length here except to say that most of the major brands we discuss below, ie. Filippo Berio, Carapelli, Bertolli, Sasso and Coricelli were found several years ago to have mislabeled virgin olive oil as extra virgin, a significant error we would say, given the difference in quality between the two and the difference in relative pricing. The tests were carried out by the Italian authorities and heavy fines were imposed. Some might argue that these companies treat this sort of thing as simply a cost of doing business and in much the same way that getting a speeding ticket doesn't stop you speeding again a few weeks later.

We will concentrate for the remainder of this article on how labels can be very misleading while at the same time being (presumably) perfectly legal.

4. Quality - even if a bottle of Italian EVO is labelled accurately and is 100% Italian, it doesn’t mean that it’s necessarily first class olive oil so there are other things you need to consider which we will discuss.

To simplify and make more concise a potentially very big and complex topic we will split the Italian olive oil market into three types of participant:

The first and simplest is the farmer who cultivates his own olives and produces his own oil and we ourselves prefer this category when it comes to buying the best oil, because the provenance is easily checked and you can visit the source. Good examples would be Baldaccini and La Badiola in Lucca and Rodyum in Campania but there are many thousands throughout Italy.

This category can also include larger family businesses with 1,000 acres or more whose production is big enough to appear on supermarket shelves in Italy and also reach export markets. Some of these we also like and buy and here we often want to see DOP or IGT certification because they are typically in the south where most Italian olive oil is made and not as easy to visit or get to know in the same way that we can with Lucca producers for example.

The second type of participant is the producer who owns a frantoio (mill) and may be a co-operative with several farmers or perhaps a corporation that owns some olive groves but also buys olives and processes them and blends the final result. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with this model and in the wine world there are some co-operatives producing wonderful wines, but we definitely want to see DOP or IGT certification here.

The final type of participant is the one that appears all over the world in export markets and is essentially a brand owner, processor and blender. These tend to have Italian names with Italian heritage but are mostly owned by non-Italian conglomerates where marketing and packaging is key and profit is the main consideration. Olive oil from these participants have labels that need reading very carefully, but we simply avoid them all.

At this juncture it may be helpful to know where most of the olive acreage is in Italy. This is the approximate breakdown of the regional origin of Italian olive oil:

1% Basilicata

1.5% Sardinia

2% Umbria

2.5% Tuscany

3.5% Lazio

4% Abruzzo

6% Campania

9% Sicily

33% Calabria

37% Puglia

It’s only a rough guide because records seem to differ everywhere we look, but it’s close enough to be helpful. The south of Italy dominates in terms of quantity and the north is virtually absent but we would make three comments about this list.

First, great olive oil can be made in most of the above regions but Tuscany produces more of the highest quality olive oil than any other region and we say that with some experience in the matter. It tends to be more expensive because overall Tuscan production is very small, but it’s worth every penny.

Second, Lombardy, Veneto and Trentino don’t even appear on the above list but all three of these Italian regions intersect at the northern end of Lago di Garda near the small town of Riva del Garda and in part because of the microclimate of the lake some of the most sublime olive oil in all of Italy is produced here. Agraria Riva del Garda is a producer we like a lot, but there are others.

Parallel 46 Olive Oils
Parallel 46 Olive Oils

You may never see Lago di Garda olive oils in the export market because production is very small but keep them in mind on your next trip to Italy.

Our third comment is purely aesthetic in the sense that when you drive around Puglia, sometimes you have to simply stop the car and admire the twisted gnarled olive trees that can be up to 500 years old. They may look a little dwarfish but they are every bit as majestic and full of history as the redwood trees along the 128 from Anderson Valley towards Mendocino in California or the giant sequoias between Bakersfield and Lone Pine.

Now we’ll talk about the big brands that take up the most shelf space in export markets and are also very visible in Italian supermarkets. The most important thing to bear in mind is that all the marketing is on the front label and all the small print is on the back label and not surprisingly the respective font sizes tend to be a little different.

The names on the front label you will see most often include Carapelli, Bertolli, Filippo Berio, Sasso, Coricelli and Colavita. These are all brand names that started a long time ago as Italian family businesses and it’s precisely because of their history and established market position that most of them were bought out.

Carapelli and Bertolli are both now owned by the Spanish company Deoleo which in turn is just over 50% owned by the American private equity group CVC Capital Partners. Filippo Berio is owned by the Chinese company Bright Food, Sasso is owned by a Saudi Arabian company and Coricelli’s foreign ownership goes through a Danish company to the Norwegian Orkla Foods conglomerate. Colavita for now remains in Italian ownership, as far as we can tell.

Before we get to the label, you have to understand one thing about the ownership structures above. It’s all about marketing, market share, profitability and brand recognition, no different from the Australian Yellow Tail wine story, if you're familiar with that. But if you’ve bothered to read this website and are interested in flavor, nuance, freshness and individuality then don’t buy any olive oil from these names.

Let’s go through one labelling example in detail. We're going to pick on Carapelli because their marketing is particularly slick and egregious but the lesson to be learned here can be applied to many of the names previously mentioned, to a greater or lesser degree.

Carapelli olive oil for sale on Amazon

Carapelli has at least four EVOs for sale in the US through Amazon and other outlets and it has the best shaped bottles and labels we've ever seen (above screenshot); they really are beautiful and made us want to buy a bottle straight away and put it on a shelf where we could admire it. They have names like Oro Verde or Organic Extra Virgin Olive Oil, followed by ‘first cold pressed’ (which means absolutely nothing by the way when an oil is already described as being EVO) and the rest of the front label is very simple with just the name Carapelli and the address Casa Olearia, Firenze 1893. They look very Italian to me because every word on the bottom front label is in Italian and what could be better than having Florence on your olive oil bottle?

Even the back label has a lot of impressive words and statements like ‘artistry’, ‘delicately crafted’, ‘heritage’, ‘organic olive groves’, ‘voluntarily implement… stricter physical and chemical parameters than the ones established by the International Olive Council’ and even further down past all the obligatory nutritional data it just gets more convincing. Next is ‘USDA Organic Certified’, followed by ‘Non GMO Project Verified’ and finally the proof that all is well, the reassuring statement: ‘Bottled in Italy’. That’s enough you say, I’m buying it.

Then right at the very bottom of the back label in very small print there is a list of countries from which the oil could come from and below that are the abbreviations for the countries that the oil in the bottle actually comes from. On the bottle I studied in detail on the Amazon website (see screenshot below) there are just two countries mentioned with no allocated percentages, Italy and Tunisia, so it is therefore entirely possible that the oil could be 99% Tunisian and 1% Italian. Caveat emptor indeed!

back label of carapelli olive oil

Furthermore when you click the Amazon link to the Carapelli store you will see a very glossy presentation and mention of the ‘Italian’ character of the oils but I couldn’t find any mention of Tunisia anywhere.

So, probably no laws broken and you can buy yourself a lovely bottle of what could be mostly Tunisian olive oil for $34 in the US, about the same price as one of the best bottles of olive oil on the entire planet, Baldaccini from Lucca, even taking into account shipping and other costs.

Our simple conclusion would be not to buy olive oil from a company with an Italian name that is owned by an American private equity fund or any profit driven conglomerate for that matter, even if it's in a fabulous looking bottle. And with the sort of profit margin available here in legally putting Tunisian olive oil into a fancy Italian looking package, the mafia must be wondering why they bother with all the hassle of the illegal drug trade.

Carapelli is also sold by Kroger and Whole Foods but at least it’s a tiny bit cheaper in those stores, but still not cheap enough for what might be mostly Tunisian oil. Interestingly the same Carapelli brands in Italian supermarkets have 100% Italiano written very clearly on the front (photo below taken in Lucca) and, assuming that description is accurate, perhaps this is where most of their scarce Italian olive oil goes with the remainder being heavily diluted by Tunisian oil and dumped onto the export market where consumers are less knowledgeable.

We've noticed these country specific differences in labelling with other brands too, so it’s very clear that the US market is the place where most of the sharp marketing practices take place because that’s where the big profit margins are to be made.

It's worth noting that Italy only accounts for about 12% of global olive oil production (by volume not price) so there is just not enough Italian olive oil to satisfy demand and therefore to make it go further, while still having Italy on the label somewhere, it is diluted with other Mediterranean oils, always it seems in undisclosed volumes.

Another example of sleight of hand is Filippo Berio's 3 liter can sold by Amazon in the US. It says ‘Imported from Italy’ in two different places on the front label (see the screenshot below) and as the side and back labels are not displayed by Amazon they can't be read. Unfortunately ‘Lucca’ also appears on the front label so it's lucky I'm not Lucchese because I'd be ashamed. It ranks number 10 of all olive oils sold by Amazon which means that it sells extremely well, yet nowhere on the Amazon page does the product description say where the oil is actually from, leaving the clear impression that it's Italian.

Despite the stated 5 star rating by buyers, many of the recent buyer comments I read said how bad the oil tasted. The actual Filippo Berio website explains their labelling policy, which is to show the origin of the oil below the nutritional information on the back label, but somehow it doesn't appear in the photographs or in the product description on the Amazon website. Perhaps this one line on Amazon described as ‘Important Information’ explains it best:

“This product is labelled to United States standards and may differ from similar products sold elsewhere in its ingredients, labeling and allergen warnings”.

Maybe this is the problem, that after all the frauds uncovered in Italy over the years, the labelling laws are now much tighter in Italy than in the US.

The UK doesn't seem any better because Waitrose sells just about every oil Filippo Berio produces yet refuses in the drop-down product details on-line to give any real detail about where the oil is from, preferring simply to list five Mediterranean countries without any percentages or specifics. Covered legally I'm sure, but where is the consumer protection here because they could all be 99% Tunisian and no-one would know.

Why don't they simply tell Berio to put the source of the oil on the actual bottle? Perhaps Waitrose itself doesn't know the detailed breakdown of the origin of the oil or perhaps they simply don't care because of the profits accruing from their extensive relationship with Filippo Berio. Disappointing behavior from a supposedly up-market supermarket.

Furthermore, Waitrose might care to reflect on why the largest two supermarket chains in Lucca, near to where Filippo Berio is based in Massarosa, refuse to stock this local brand of olive oil.

The simple rule to remember in export markets is that if it doesn't prominently say 100% Italian on the front label then you'll have to look hard somewhere else to find out where the oil is really from or simply do not buy any of these brands, which would be our advice.

Given the long history of fraud and the continuing obfuscation by major brands, the onus rests on retailers to provide more information to consumers because if they don't why shouldn't we assume that they're hiding something? Much more transparency is required and that would include Costco and Walmart who sell their own label Italian olive oil with a paucity of information. For example, I can't find any information anywhere on the La Civetta brand they both sell. It says product of Italy, made in Puglia but it omits saying that it's 100% from Italian olives. Perhaps it is, who knows, but why can't I find any more information about it, not just on the retailers' web sites but anywhere on the entire internet.

In the final analysis if you want to buy any of these brands you'll have to do your homework and then taste the oil that you buy alongside something we recommend that can be bought directly from Italy. Only then will you understand the quality of the oil you just bought.

One fairly recent development by the more scrupulous producers is to incorporate a QR barcode so you can trace the oil from tree to table, but whether this is available or not, our suggestion would be to at least to find out from the producer’s website whether they actually own any acreage themselves and produce their own oil from locally grown olives.

This brings us to the point addressed in item (4) at the start of this article.

Olives are in many respects even more delicate than grapes and the more they are handled, the longer they sit around and the more distance they have to travel after harvesting before they are processed at the frantoio, the greater the deterioration will be and this will show up in diminished flavor and higher acidity. To qualify as EVO, the acidity level must be below 0.8% and the best oils are always significantly below this.

The safest way to ensure that your Italian olive oil is actually Italian and adheres to the best quality controls throughout all stages of production is to look for the red and orange/yellow circular DOP stamp on the bottle (photo right) and then you won’t need to study the label in too much detail. The lesser IGP certification is also an indication of authenticity and quality control but it allows for some part of the origin, production or processing of the food product to take place outside the specific geographic area mentioned; but obviously not in another country.

We look for DOP or IGP ourselves when we buy an olive oil in the supermarket from a producer that we haven’t visited personally and the two we typically buy (photo right) for under 11 euros per liter are both DOP oils that come from big enough producers to also be available in the export markets.

The first one is San Giuliano from Alghero in Sardinia which has about 1,000 acres of olives ( and the second is Conte Spagnoletti Zeuli ( from Castel del Monte, north of Bari in Puglia. Their 750 acres surrounds the 13th century castle built by the Emperor Federico II, that we visited a few years ago (see photo below) and they have a QR barcode as an additional guarantee of provenance.

Castel del Monte in Puglia

Both are very good multi-purpose oils which we would be happy using to dress salads, though in Italy they are cheap enough to use for cooking. Another producer that we have visited and trust but whose oils, though very good, are quite expensive even in Italy is Pruneti, based in San Polo in Chianti. There is always an extensive collection of their olive oils on sale in the departure area at Pisa airport.

What Italian olive oil do you have in your kitchen cupboard?


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