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Why nobody can agree on which olive oil is “fake”. And why we shouldn’t listen to them anyway

Commentary

Are you ready to rumble? Because it’s time for another classic food-biz punch-up. In this corner, Dr. Mehmet Oz, terrifying TV purveyor of health information. And in this corner, a food industry trade organization. They’re facing off in a Georgia state court over the question of whether supermarket olive oil is real or fake.

Who are you inclined to believe?

I know, it’s a tough one. On one side you’ve got Dr. Oz, who is, shall we say, not a top contender for the title of world’s most credible guy. When a team of Canadian researchers looked into his TV program for an article that appeared in the British Medical Journal, they discovered that he made roughly a dozen health recommendations per episode—and only one-third were supported by credible science. He was soundly dressed down by Senator Claire McCaskill during Senate hearings for his advocacy of three “miracle” discoveries. Ten well-known physicians called on Columbia University to revoke his medical school professorship.

Dr. Oz: Not a top contender for the world’s most credible guy

On the other side, you have the North American Olive Oil Association (NAOOA), a food industry association. You know, like the American Egg Board, which waged a secret campaign against Just Mayo, an egg-free alternative. Or the Sugar Research Foundation, which in the 1960s paid scientists to shift the blame for heart disease from sugar to fat. Is the NAOOA another institutional bad guy? It’s always hard to know—your Aunt Mabel may waddle like a duck and quack like a duck, but she’s, well, your Aunt Mabel, not a duck. But we’ll all be forgiven for regarding industry groups with an extra dose of skepticism these days.

It “may even be fake”? That’s something you could say truthfully of almost anything.

Here are the basics of the case: In May of 2016, Dr. Oz broadcast a segment in which he made the case that “a shocking 80 percent of the olive oil that you buy every day in your supermarket isn’t the real deal. It may even be fake.” He went on to describe how an unscrupulous manufacturer will dilute real olive oil with sunflower oil, add a bit of chlorophyll for color, and “here’s the key, it’ll slap a little label on there saying ‘packed in Italy’ and then you ship it to U.S. supermarkets.”

To prove the point, he brought on certified oleologist Maia Hirschbein. Hirschbein tasted five samples of oil, slurping them charmingly and inhaling their bouquet. And sure enough, four out of the five failed the taste test. (I’m taking the description of the show from multiple sources, including the few fragments of video that haven’t been pulled down, several new accounts, and the NAOOA complaint. There doesn’t seem to be any substantial disagreement on what happened. I just wasn’t able to view the show for myself.)

Shenanigans, said NAOOA, which went on to sue Dr. Oz and his producers under Georgia’s largely untested “food libel” law, which makes it easier to pursue people who disparage food products than it is to pursue people who disparage people. NAOOA’s objections included:

  •    •   NAOOA is the group that certifies olive oil for the United States, and its own testing finds that 98 percent of samples tested meet or exceed the standards of the International Olive Council (IOC), founded by the United Nations to support and regulate the world trade in olives and olive oil. By falsely disparaging olives, Dr. Oz was undercutting NAOOA’s ability to do its job.
  •    •   Dr. Oz never revealed that his guest expert in fact works for California Olive Ranch, a big California producer and big proponent of purchasing domestic instead of imported olive oil. This raises the possibility that Hirschbein’s advocacy of local olive oil and the show’s negative remarks about “packed in Italy” are the product of conflict of interest rather than science. Besides, one expert’s taste test is not enough to declare olive oil real or not real, extra virgin or not.
  •    •   Oh, and speaking of Italy, Dr. Oz made some scary remarks about 70,000 tons of U.S.-bound olive oil being seized in Italy. The implication was that it was fake. In fact, there was nothing wrong with it but the fact that the olives were not grown in Italy. That’s a big deal to Italian trade authorities. To the rest of us, not so much.

Honestly, it doesn’t sound like much of a lawsuit, though I’m constantly surprised by what makes it to a jury. As someone who has occasionally been obliged to compose weaseling sentences designed to avert libel suits, I have to give props to Dr. Oz’s “isn’t the real deal. It may even be fake.” That’s weaseling at its finest. It “may even be fake”? That’s something you could say truthfully of almost anything. And “isn’t the real deal”? That gets us into some interesting territory.

In libel, the weasel often walks away unharmed.

Dr. Oz’s numbers on “fake” olive oil seem to come from a study done by the Olive Center at the University of California–Davis in 2011. The center subjected 14 imported and five California brands of extra virgin olive oil to a battery of tests, including the crucial taste by IOC-certified tasters. The Olive Center’s conclusions: 69 percent of the imported samples and 10 percent of the domestic samples failed the taste test.

Chlorophyll and sunflower oil? Not necessarily. Extra virgin olive oil is delicate stuff. It deteriorates when exposed to light or heat, or if it hangs around too long. Though the study didn’t identify specific causes for each failure, it said the likeliest causes were oxidation, adulteration with refined olive oil, or use of low-grade olives. The tasting panel didn’t say anything was fake—it said a lot of the allegedly extra virgin oil should be properly labeled as virgin. (“Virgin” refers mostly to how the oil was made. “Extra virgin” includes a judgment of quality.)

One says that 98 percent passed. The other says that two-thirds failed.

Which means, I think, that Dr. Oz is probably safe. He can argue that mislabeled food can reasonably be called “fake.” In libel, the weasel often walks away unharmed. But here’s what I want to know: Two allegedly serious, allegedly scientific organizations looked at what seems to be roughly the same group of products. One says that 98 percent passed. The other says that two-thirds failed. In the long run, that won’t fly. I know there are lots of reasons why statistics fail to match up—starting with the way that studies don’t necessarily look at the same thing. Could there be glitches because NAOOA is looking at all oils and the Olive Center just at extra virgin? Maybe. Could the two groups, while both citing IOC actually be using different standards for defining what passes and what fails? That seems reasonably likely.

But it’s not reasonable to expect us folks at home to work it out. My own recommendation: If these two presumably estimable organizations can’t explain why they get such wildly different results, let’s not listen to either of them. Sure, we may end up eating some virgin rather than extra virgin olive oil. But if you’re worried about your own mental health benefits, then not worrying about ridiculous disagreements has to be worth something.

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Patrick Clinton

Patrick Clinton is a long-time journalist and educator. He edited the Chicago Reader during the politically exciting years that surrounded the election of the city’s first black mayor, Harold Washington; University Business during the early days of for-profit universities and online instruction; and Pharmaceutical Executive during a period that saw the Vioxx scandal and the ascendancy of biotech. He has written and worked as a staff editor for a variety of publications, including Chicago, Men’s Journal, and Outside (for which he ran down the answer to everyone’s most burning question about porcupines). For seven years, he taught magazine writing and editing at Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism.