Olive oil fakers are greasing the wheels of organised crime across Europe capitalising on soaring prices caused by forest fires and heavy rain wreaking havoc with the harvest.
On Monday, police in Spain said they had intercepted an enormous shipment of 260,000 litres, 68,000 gallons, of ‘high quality’ oil that detectives said was actually ‘unfit for human consumption’.
Some 11 people were seized in the sting, which also uncovered 91,000 euros worth of billing documents. And in Greece farmers of the precious yellow liquid have been forced to guard their groves from thieves wanting to steal the crop which has seen prices soaring.
Gangs of chainsaw-wielding crooks have been chopping down ancient 150-year-old trees worth thousands of pounds and carting them off in trucks in the dead of night.
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The supply of the quintessentially Mediterranean product has become a battleground on the continent for gangs who are trying to take advantage of prices for the genuine product tripling since 2019.
In Greece, Euronews reports 13 tonnes of counterfeit oil was discovered by police being peddled as sunflower oil labelled as olive oil. The fake cooking ingredient had been destined for Bulgaria.
The news site said two men allegedly added colouring agents to the sunflower oil to try and pass it off as premium extra virgin olive oil.
Spanish police said in October they had retrieved 91 tons of stolen olives in recent weeks. In February, six people were arrested in southern Greece for the theft of eight tons of olive oil in a series of warehouse break-ins over several weeks.
In Italy the regional agricultural association in Bari, in the southern Puglia region, asked for police help after reports that 100 olive trees were destroyed or seriously damaged in a single incident last month.
Spanish newspaper Clarin reports Europol, the EU’s police agency, said “Unfortunately, the counterfeiting of extra virgin olive oil is a common practice, so the fight against it is a law enforcement priority, especially in producer countries.
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“This illegal practice may not only cause a risk to public health, but also undermine consumer confidence and therefore have additional economic repercussions.”
In 2022 the olive oil import market to the UK was worth around £300million, and home cooks increasingly turn to the Mediterranean staple as it’s seen as healthier option to some home-grown oils.
But enthusiastic amateur chefs in Britain could be blissfully unaware of the lengths Greek growers like Konstantinos Markou have to go to protecting the foodstuff.
Mr Markou, whose neighbours recently lost 15 trees to thieves, told Greek paper Ekathimerini oil olive theft was big business right now, adding: “The olive robbers can sometimes produce more oil than the owners themselves, seriously.”
Olive oil mill owner Neilos Papachristou told the publication it can take years for the groves to recover from an attack.
He said: “The [robbers] look for heavily loaded branches and they cut them. So, not only do they steal our olives, but they cause the tree serious harm. It takes four to five years for it to return to normal.”
In Spain, the world’s largest producer of olive oil, prices have increased by more than 70 percent this year alone because of draught conditions, according to the BBC.
Farmer Francisco José García de Zúñiga told the broadcaster: “This is turning out to be another bad year, to put it mildly. We’ve had two years of drought in a row, 2022 and 2023, and two years of bad harvests.
“When Spain has problems, that creates problems for global production. If the world supply is lower because Spain is producing less and the demand remains the same, the price goes up – it’s the law of supply and demand.”
In Greece, Italy and Spain extra virgin olive oil reached around £3.40 per pound wholesale in September this year, three times the price from 2019.
For consumers the average price of a staple like extra virgin olive oil in Greece has jumped from £6.35 for a litre last year, to nearly £12 a litre this year.
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