Changeable weather conditions in the Mediterranean made 2014 a terrible year for the olive harvest there. That means a lower yield of olive oil, which is likelier to get more expensive—and more shadily labeled—as a result.
Photo via Flickr user Robyn Lee
It's the golden elixir of the kitchen, that cherished lipid that makes its way into all of a cook's favorite dishes, from a basic sauté to a polished gremolata: extra-virgin olive oil. Its culinary applications are endless, its flavor is inimitable, and, starting soon, it's going to be way more expensive.
This year, the Mediterranean—where 95 percent of the world's olive trees are located—was blasted with some of the worst olive-growing weather in recent history. In Italy, Spain, France, and Portugal, fluctuating spring temperatures and an overabundance of summer rain messed with production of the tiny, lucrative fruits, and also provided ideal breeding conditions for two major pests: olive flies and olive moths. As a result, the harvest of usable olives dropped dramatically across the region, which supplies over 70 percent of the world's olive oil. And lower oil yields will mean higher prices for the product that will make its way to store shelves in the coming months.
"For olive oil producers, 2014 is the year they wish had never happened," Rolando Beramendi, an importer of Italian foods, told the LA Times.
In Italy, a perennial favorite producer among olive oil connoisseurs, conditions were particularly bad. Writing in the Times, Russ Parsons noted that "when the trees were turning flowers to fruit in the spring, freezing weather suddenly turned scorching, causing the trees to drop olives. Summer was hot and humid, leading to all sorts of problems. Then, in mid-September, there there was a major hail storm, knocking much of the fruit that remained onto the ground." With olive production down 35 percent from last year, Italian newspaper La Repubblica is calling 2014 "The Black Year of Italian Oil."
"This crop is not to be remembered. This is a crop to be forgotten in every aspect," Augusto Spagnoli, an organic olive grower from Nerola, told ABC News.
Things were even worse in Spain, now the top exporter of the good green stuff. Last year, the country exported a record-breaking 1.5 million tons of olive oil. But this year, it's projected to make out with an olive harvest of only 1 million tons—if that—compared to the 2 million tons it harvested last year.
A drastically reduced olive oil export means that prices for the ever-in-demand-ingredient will rise. Consumers in the US have yet to see a higher sticker price on individual bottles of oil, but in Europe, bulk prices are already going up. One Puglian olive farmer told Business Insider that he expected Italian olive oil prices to rise 30 to 40 percent. In Bari, a coastal southern Italian region prized for its oil, prices have skyrocketed from 2.7 to 6 euros per kilogram. In Spain, by the end of August, per-kilogram prices had already risen from 2.4 to 2.7 euros.
About 70 percent of imported oil is fraudulently represented, labeled as extra-virgin when it isn't, or adulterated with lesser, or non-olive, oils.
In addition to elevated prices, the olive oil shortage will likely lead to an increase in fraudulent labeling, an issue that's already rampant in the industry. In 2007, Tom Mueller, one of the world's foremost experts on olive oil production, dropped a bombshell of an article in The New Yorker in which he revealed that in the late 1990s, olive oil was the most adulterated agricultural product in the EU. Oils such as hazelnut, from Turkey, and sunflower-seed, from Argentina, were regularly shipped in vast quantities to major olive oil producers in Italy and Greece, who bottled it—sometimes mixed with olive oil, sometimes not—and sold, under major brands including Bertolli, as real Greek and Italian olive oil.
"Olive oil is far more valuable than most other vegetable oils, but it is costly and time-consuming to produce—and surprisingly easy to doctor," Mueller—who later turned his research into a book—wrote in the article.
Seven years later, the mislabeling of olive oil persists: About 70 percent of imported oil is fraudulently represented. Companies routinely claim olive oil is extra-virgin when it doesn't meet those standards; they adulterate it with lesser or non-olive oils; and they assert it's produced in desirable countries of origin such as Italy and Greece when it isn't. In the case of Italian olive oil, there's a legal loophole that allows companies to label oil by the country where it was bottled—so even Algerian olive oil, once packaged in Italy, can say it's Italian.
Italy is already importing 45 percent more olive oil, an indication that it intends to beef up its paltry 2014 harvest with foreign-grown oil.
"Be doubly suspicious of anything that claims to come from Tuscany, Umbria or another of the harder-hit regions," Mueller warned in the LA Times article.
With prices going up on crappy "Italian" "olive oil," it's probably time to start hoarding your valuable extra-virgin stuff as if it were water and the year were 1999.