Opaque Oil

It’s Foodie Friday and I’ve got olive oil on my brain. If you cook, you use olive oil at some point. You might even pay the premium for extra virgin, especially if you’re using it in a dressing. That’s where the fun begins today.

Oil tasting, BAIA October 2006 Wine Tasting, C...

 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I read a book a couple of years ago called Extra Virginity. It’s written by Tom Mueller, who continues to write about the Italian olive oil business, which is rife with fraud. That’s right: you may be paying for a product that is not what you think it is. As reported in the Guardian:

Top Italian olive oil producers are under investigation for allegedly passing off lower-quality products as “extra virgin”, raising fresh concerns about allegations of consumer fraud in the industry. Turin police are examining whether seven companies – Carapelli, Bertolli, Santa Sabina, Coricelli, Sasso, Primadonna, and Antica Badia – have been selling virgin olive oil as 100% extra virgin. According to allegations in Italian press reports, an analysis of samples from all seven brands found that they did not meet EU labelling rules for extra virgin olive oil.

It’s not just the olive oil guys. There is a significant risk of fraud with fish, honey, milk, select spices (saffron, black pepper, chili powder), fruit juices, meat, grains and organic foods. This topic is way too long for a daily screed, but there are two business points which are applicable to any of us in business. The first, and most obvious, is that when consumers can no longer trust your brand, they will move on. Look at what has happened to Volkswagen after they rigged the results of their auto emission tests. You might think that your brand is strong enough to come back after that sort of loss of trust, but you’re delusional. We’ve spent a fair amount of time on honesty and transparency this week, so you know my point of view.

Second, and less obvious.  Chances are that the consumer won’t realize that they’ve been deceived.  They will probably think their dish is just not great or that they did something “wrong” when the fraudulent product doesn’t perform well.  Even if they don’t lose faith in the brand, they might just stop being a consumer of that category altogether.  I am unaware of any industry that wants to shrink its user base, and while people won’t stop cooking, they might switch to another kind of oil that has the same characteristics or to another type of car than a diesel.

I realize that fraud in the food world – or any other business – isn’t new.  There are reports of doctored products going back centuries.  The difference now is that detection and reporting happen more rapidly and that reporting can be widespread instantly.  The damage never goes away because the reports turn up in searches forever.  The solution?  Don’t do it!

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