Olive Oil Trouble

Olive-oil fraud was already common in antiquity. Galen tells of unscrupulous oil merchants who mixed high-quality olive oil with cheaper substances like lard, and Apicius provides a recipe for turning cheap Spanish oil into prized oil from Istria using minced herbs and roots. The Greeks and the Romans used olive oil as food, soap, lotion, fuel for lamps and furnaces, a base for perfumes, and a cure for heart ailments, stomach aches, hair loss, and excessive perspiration. They also considered it a sacred substance; cult statues, like the effigy of Zeus at Olympia, were rubbed regularly with oil. People who bathed or exercised in Greek gymnasiums anointed their bodies as well, using oils that were scented with pressed flowers and roots. Some scholars link the central place of olive oil in Greek sports, which were performed in the nude, with the rise of bronze statuary in the sixth century B.C. “A tanned athlete, shining in the summer sun, covered with oil, would really resemble a statue of the gods,” Nigel Kennell, a specialist in ancient history at the American School of Classical Studies at Athens, said. Belief in the sacred, health-giving properties of olive oil continued in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. “Christ” is from the Greek christos, meaning “the anointed one”—anointed with olive oil.

—From “Slippery Business,” Tom Mueller’s 2007 story for the New Yorker about olive oil fraud. The recent spike in olive oil prices due to a disease in Italy nicknamed “olive ebola” and drought in Spain could spur more fraud: “When prices are high and supplies reduced, there is more incentive for fraud and for criminals to get involved,” a lawyer who specializes in food told the Financial Times last month.

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