Since the Greek goddess Athena created the first olive tree as a tribute to Athens, olives have been a symbol for peace and prosperity throughout the world. In today’s world, however, it’s not just the Athenians who are prospering off olives, but more surprisingly the Italian mafia. Three weeks ago, 60 Minutes aired a news story following the extensive involvement of the Italian mafia in our olive oil industry. The Italians call this food fraud “Agromafia,” a serious crime for a country that takes pride in their food. The mafia’s involvement in the olive oil industry is extensive, spanning “the entire food chain, from the farm to the fork,” as Italian journalist Tom Mueller puts it. “From harvesting, they impose their own workers, they impose prices, to the transportation… Mafia involvement in supermarkets as well.”
The process is a relatively simple one. They take high-grade Italian wine, dilute it with some sunflower oil since it has no smell and then add just a few drops of chlorophyll for color. It is deodorized with chemicals and then rebranded as a more famous, expensive Italian oil. The best virgin olive oil costs around $50 to make. However the mafia is able to replicate it for the equivalent cost of seven dollars. This gives the mafia a huge profit, three times that of cocaine. Not only does the mafia control a huge sector of the olive oil industry, but they also have a hand in the small businesses that sell their own olive oil. Food businesses are not necessarily owned by the mafia, but they still pay the mafia what is called “pizzo,” a sort of protection fee from mafia. Refusal to pay results in vandalization of property and harassment. Yet this is not necessarily a huge problem to many businesses. Though unjust and manipulative, many businesses have “been doing this for so long, generation by generation, that it’s normal for them. It’s not even a problem,” as said by Ermes Riccobono, a prominent anti-pizzo advocator. This exhortation can be anywhere from $5 a week to $500 a month, depending on the business size, adding up to an extortion cost of at least $6 billion annually.
However, the mafia is not going unchecked. There is an organized police force in Italy aimed at taking down the mafia’s abuse of the olive oil industry, what Sergio Tirro, one of the top investigators of food fraud in Europe, calls “the FBI of food.” He has 1100 cops trained at conducting inspections and fraud investigations, as well as more trained to be able to taste the food and tell whether or not it is fraudulent. Their skill is so respected that Italian courts accept taste tests as evidence. In the last two years, they have successfully seized 59,000 tons of mafia food which are poor quality and contaminated with solvents or pesticides. Tirro says, “it is a serious problem because it’s not only a commercial fraud…if you adulterate extra virgin olive oil with seed oil and those bottles reach consumers who are allergic to seed oil, you are sending them bombs.” This is an estimated $16 billion enterprise for the mafia.
And not just olive oil. The mafia has also been caught selling rotten seafood that has been deodorized with citric acid, mozzarella whitened with detergent and wines that have been mixed with poorer quality wine and rebranded. However, olive oil is the favorite target for the mafia because it has the largest margin of profit. Mueller estimates that about 50 percent of olive oil in circulation in Italy is fraudulent, and upwards of 80 percent of all olive oil in the U.S.
In order to test this, 60 Minutes reporter Bill Whitaker gave three brands of U.S. olive oil to the food investigators for the blind taste test. The investigators all agreed that two of the brands “did not come within a sniff of extra virgin. They described one as lampante — the lowest quality olive oil. That brand happens to be one of the best-selling in America,” said Whitaker.
Though the mafia’s hand in your kitchen might be a terrifying idea, the truth is they aren’t trying to kill you. You are the customer, so killing you off would be killing off the demand, making it bad for business. The biggest concern in the power and control the mafia has in the olive oil industry and the abuses that come with it. The mafia might not be trying to kill you, but they are definitely ripping the customers, businesses and other corporations off.