Season 1 Episode 4

Tom Mueller

This Week's Guest:

Tom Mueller

Investigative Author

With his groundbreaking article in The New Yorker and then a highly acclaimed book Extra Virginity: The Sublime and Scandalous World of Olive Oil, author Tom Mueller has more than anyone else exposed the dark side of the olive oil business and the need for change. And not much has — with allegations of corruption and fraud in today’s headlines continuing to turn people away confused and distrustful. We spoke with Tom at his home in Liguria.

Curtis CordYou go to the supermarket in Dallas, Madrid, London, or New Delhi, and you buy a bottle of extra virgin olive oil because you know it’s the one that tastes the best. It’s the healthiest for you and your family and it’s unrefined. By that I mean it hasn’t undergone chemical or industrial processes. It is simply pressed fruit juice. You gladly pay more for your extra virgin olive oil because it’s worth the money. Here’s the simple truth. There’s a very small chance that the oil you bring home is really extra virgin. Most likely, it’s a lower grade like the others on the shelf you didn’t choose. Or it could be something far worse.

It’s been four years since the first release of investigative journalist Tom Mueller’s ground breaking book, “Extra Virginity,” which enlightened readers to not just the fraud that goes on in the olive oil industry and it’s long shady history, but also the rich culture. The extraordinary gift to all of us that is olive oil and the importance of making some changes.

Tom, welcome.

Tom MuellerThank you Curtis. It’s good to be here.

Curtis CordDoes it seem like four years?
Tom MuellerWhen you said that I could hardly believe it actually. No, it doesn’t. A great deal has happened. I’m not sure in which direction, but four years is longer than I … I guess it’s because it’s ongoing. It happens in waves in different countries. I’m seeing it serially as it happens in Italy where I live. In the states where the book first came out. That’s a surprising fact.

Curtis CordThe book and even your exposé in the New Yorker that led to your book are still so widely cited. It has been an eye opener for so many of us and serves as a reference to the challenges the olive oil industry needs to face before people get what’s rightfully their own, which is an extremely important and healthy food from a fruit grown throughout the world. I would think you must be satisfied with what you’ve done to bring to light this underbelly in the olive oil industry and the corruption plaguing the food industry in general.
Tom MuellerThe danger with exposés is that a certain number of people just tune out that entire frequency. I’ve had people say, “Oh boy that olive oil world. That certainly is a corrupt world. I’ve just stopped buying olive oil. I buy something else.” I think, “Oh no, no.” Slap forehead with palm. If people can get also the incredible … I do. As a matter of fact, one time in frustration I did a page count. It’s something like 75% good news about olive oil and about the people who make the real stuff. Then about 25% bad news. If people can hear the good and the bad, they’ll hear that it’s really worth the extra energy, time, and learning to get the good stuff. It really is one of the world’s great foods.

Curtis CordBefore we talk about what’s going on today, looking back at the 2012 investigation by the U.S. International Trade Commission, which American producers lobbied for. Not only did I watch you testify in Washington before the commission, but I know investigators also interviewed you in Italy in the course of preparing their analysis. Do you think that was any kind of tipping point? What impact do you think that two million dollar report has had on the industry and the campaign for truth and labeling and trade.
Tom MuellerIt becomes a point of reference for anyone who wants to take on seriously the question of what do we do next. How are we going to improve enforcement. How are we going to improve truth and labeling. I am not aware of very strong specific cases in which a major win has grown out of that report. Frankly I was also heartened and impressed by the level of work, the level of detail that the investigators showed. I mean they didn’t take my word for it. They didn’t take anyone’s word for it. They traveled widely. They questioned a bunch of people. They questioned people that I suggested they talk to but also people who disagreed violently with me. That’s all good. Overall I think that their report is balanced, it’s smart, and well informed. It’s going to be now and in the future a data point that is difficult to ignore.

Curtis CordWhat do they do? Come to your town and sit down with you in a café or …?
Tom MuellerFirst we talked on the phone. Then we met up in a couple of places in Tuscany and went to some facilities. I told them what I knew and then the owner told them a lot more. It was a field trip for them. They also introduced them to an importer and exporter who talked a lot about issues of controls, quality controls in the E.U. and what happens when it enters the North American space and so on.

I basically did a hand off to experts. I mean, I wrote a book on the stuff but I don’t consider myself a real expert in any of the particular fields. I am an expert on experts. I know everybody now. Who is the world authority in any given thing, whether it’s olive oil chemistry or food law or whatever. I am able to pass people off to the genuine authorities.

I did that in this case and also gave them a walking tour of certain areas where you can really see the impact of certain trends, certain negative trends, in the olive oil production in Italy and the abandonment of fields because people just simply can’t make a living anymore.

Curtis CordThe investigation centered on the so-called competitiveness of the American olive oil industry in the context of world trade. The take away from it was well no, we’re kind of getting screwed over here. There are a lot of barriers and it’s difficult for American producers to make their way with a lot of the inferior oils, the subsidized oils, that are being imported and they’re on the shelves. Many of them not as labeled. We’ve got to make some changes. Do you think that it’s going to lead to some concrete legislative action?
Tom MuellerThat’s a tough one. First of all, you need to have a body that is willing to apply any laws that you may have. The last take that I took on the FDA, they very frankly and I think rather courageously said, “We can’t possibly take that on right now give our current staffing levels, given our current resources. We have an exponentially growing body of what is considered more urgent issues to deal with.” You need somebody to apply the laws.

Then you need better laws and clearer truth and labeling. The legislation obviously has to be tightened. If you’re ultimately going to have a dead letter law to begin with, I’m not sure that it wouldn’t be better to invest more. At least in the part of producers, growers, importers, honest ones, and educating consumers. I mean, ultimately I think that’s what made the difference in why. Not some change in law, not even the methanol scandal despite the fact that some people will disagree with me there. I do think that educating consumers ultimately is going to be what drives this.

As soon as two or three consumers in a given store go the manager and say, “Look, this says extra virgin and says that it was bottled three years ago. It’s clearly rancid, clearly fusty. That’s illegal. This is not extra virgin. I want my money back.” That manager is going to say, A. “Here’s your money.” B. “Someone tell me about this now. I need to know more.” Until that happens … Many laws are not worth the paper they’re written on. I’m not convinced from what I’ve seen that a major change in legislation is going to be the answer.

Curtis CordOn January 14, 2014, the New York Times published a sensational info-graphic titled “Extra Virgin Suicide” that was riddled with inaccuracies and it cited you as a source Tom.
Tom MuellerYeah, the source. I remember that well.

Curtis CordI remember being jolted out of my winter slumber by the piece and shocked enough to publish an opinion within hours denouncing the stereotypes and inaccuracies and lamenting the collateral damage that I thought that story would cause to ethical producers. Listeners can see the timeline of how the whole thing unfolded on Olive Oil Times. The author of the piece was Nicholas Blechman, a New York Times illustrator, not a reporter. You, Tom, when it first came out, you congratulated him with a tweet at first. Then you read the words closely and the emails started flying. Then you quickly came out to condemn the piece, saying it was loosely based on an interview and your book. You said that you were in fact dismayed that you were cited in the story.

Blechman started getting hit with tweets and emails too. At one point saying, “I’m just an illustrator,” leaving everyone to wonder how the New York Times could publish something so disparaging without any writer on record. Then finally on January 29, fifteen days after the story published and all the damage was done, and no one visited the page anymore, the Times made the corrections. They might seem to some like small corrections but to many they were quite important. They published a redaction at the end of the info-graphic, it is there today, in one of the smallest font sizes I have ever seen online. This is what it says. “The graphic incorrectly cited Tom Mueller as the source of the information. While Mr. Mueller’s blog and other writings were consulted in preparation of the graphic, several of his findings were misinterpreted.”

Tom, I’m sure you must have had your fair share of angry emails over the years. I’m sure that must have been a tough week for you. Maybe because the piece was calling out more than just the bad guys. Making lazy generalizations that you take pains to avoid in your journalism.

Tom MuellerIt was about a week as you say. At first, I knew that Nicholas Blechman was working on this because he had called me many months before. We had a brief chat. He’d been at the American Academy in Rome and I was down there. We talked about this and that. We talked a little bit about olive oil. Then he said he was going to read my book and he wanted to do a project. I said, “That sounds great.”

Then I heard via twitter. Several people said, “Hey great work on the New York Times thing.” Saying it to me. I thought, “Oh what’s going on there.” I quickly flipped to the New York Times site and I looked at the graphics and the were quite eye catching. I think he’s a wonderful illustrator. Quite eye-catching, quite clever. I disagreed with a few things, but I mean who doesn’t. The skull and cross bones with olives was kind of a punch in the gut. That’s creative license, right?

I quickly tweeted to let people know, “Hey this actually isn’t me this is Nicholas Blechman. Great job!” Then I started reading the words. I didn’t even realize there were words at first, I just started reading the pictures. The words really didn’t capture … As you say, they conflate a whole bunch of different things. They identify one kind of fraud as another. They talk about a huge percentage of adulteration when in fact that’s really not a huge percentage at this point. Various other things.

I felt first of all like an idiot for having said, “Hey great work,” then having to go back on that. Then needless to say, I was cited as the source. Nicholas Blechman who was really the creative force behind this from beginning to end, he was the illustrator, so it really sounded like I was the one who came up with this notion and gave it to him when I was done. He came up with the clever visuals. That’s just not the way it went down at all. I think it’s a very unfortunate combination of … Well, it’s a wonderful visual. I think even the visuals are a bit of an overstatement. The words were really problematic. I’m super disappointed in the New York Times for not doing the right thing first of all, in fact-checking, and second of all, in retraction or correction. As you say, fifteen days is a shocking amount of time to let go by.

The problem with this is is when you have enough doubt in a market, you open yourself up to misunderstandings and attacks of this kind. Even accidental ones. I genuinely think this was a completely in good faith thing. He thought he was getting it right and he thought he was telling an accurate and clever story. Visually, it was quite vivid. Quite striking. If there’s enough doubt about what’s in those bottles and you hear fraud, fraud, fraud … That’s part of what I feel like the olive oil industry, whether it’s importers or national producers, one of the critical things is to dispel doubt.

You really have to step up. For a period of time, you have to go the extra mile to prove to people that this is the real McCoy. I feel like unfortunately, it’s price over quality so often. It’s important for people to understand that the vast majority of oil that’s consumed in the United States but also frankly around the Mediterranean was not produced by the same people it was bottled by. The names that you read on the labels are just that. Labels. They were probably bought and sold decades if not a century before. The actual makers of the oil … Who knows who they are. That’s part of the doubt that the New York Times info-graphic kind of …

Curtis CordPlayed on?
Tom MuellerPlayed on. Exactly. I think that’s the right word. Everyone knows that there’s some slippery business going on here in this olive oil world and so let’s make it a little more fun. Until people really stand … People, being the people in the industry stand up and say, “We stand behind a hundred percent product. We are really for the consumer.” Then that kind of thing is going to happen now and then.

Curtis CordWhat plagues the industry more than anything else is misinformation about the product in one form or another leads to more wreckage. A few weeks ago in Turin, as a matter of fact, a prosecutor announced an investigation that arose when it was discovered that some of the biggest supermarket brands were not extra virgin but instead they were virgin grade. The difference being that there were some taste defects in the tested samples. Some people might think, “Is that all? They didn’t taste perfect? It’s not like it was motor oil. The prosecutor is making this big announcement of a federal fraud investigation?” There’s much more to it than that, isn’t there Tom?
Tom MuellerYeah, the law on olive oil has a chemical and a taste component and they are of equal importance. In other words, if you pass the chemical but fail the taste, you still get downgraded and your product is still not, in the case of extra virgin, is not extra virgin if there’s one taste flaw.

The reason that the legislators put that in, and believe me. It did not go in over night. It was decades of work and development of the sensory testing. It was because it was very easy to fiddle the chemistry and extraordinarily difficult to fiddle the sensory. Sensory ultimately because of that is the best indication of whether you’re really getting fresh-squeezed olive juice, which is extra virgin olive oil, or something inferior to that. Inferior can be with a very minor test defect or several major taste flaws. Rancid, mold, things that are really unhealthy. They can be a very, very subtle lack of fruitiness. I mean we’re talking about some things that can be extraordinarily subtle and other things that just hit you like a sledge hammer.

If you’re spending thirty or forty percent more for extra virgin, you deserve to get what’s on the label. Once upon a time, not that long ago, on the shelves you would see virgin oil and extra virgin oil. I’m all for that. It’s like wine. You can get a tetra pak of cooking wine and no one pretends that it’s going to be grand cru. You use it for cooking. If you want to drink it, go ahead. Pop a straw in there and go to it. You’re not going to be fooled about what you’re buying.

In olive oil nowadays, you never see virgin on the shelves. It’s all extra virgin. Super extra virgin. That’s both for consumers to make sure they’re getting the good stuff and the healthy stuff and the healthy stuff, but it’s also for producers who some are going to extraordinary lengths and a great deal of expense to make great olive oil. They get to put extra virgin on there. Unfortunately they are undercut by folks who are sweeping it up off the ground and deodorizing it and mixing it and blending it and selling it as extra virgin for a fifth of the price.

Curtis CordBig olive oil companies would love to do away with a taste test in favor of the other analytic methods that you mentioned. They said that the tasting panels are subjective and tasters often contradict themselves. Why are tasting panels in the cross hairs of big oil and is it so important to have human sensory analysis be part of the extra virgin classification process? After all, machines do everything else these day, don’t they?
Tom MuellerMachines would be the ideal solution here if we could get someone to invent the right machine and then get someone to set it to the proper specifications. Our olfactory equipment is far more sensitive than anything science has produced so far.

If we’re looking at matters of taste, whether you like something or don’t like something, do you prefer more bitter or more pungent, that’s completely subjective. If you’re looking at the presence or absence of a give taste flaw or a giving sensory flaw I should say. We’re talking about rancid, we’re talking about musty, we’re talking about mold. These things are yes or no. Sensory science, food science, is taught in universities. It’s a science. The decades of hard work that have gone into developing the taste panel and the statistical analysis that goes into processing the work of the taste panel is pretty much bullet proof.

It’s, in my view, not at all subjective. The reason that this was put into the law is because it’s very easy to fiddle the chemistry. Frankly, the people who set the chemical parameters are usually the same people, the same top chemists, who work at the top olive oil companies. For very good reasons, because they know a hell of a lot about olive oil. I’m not saying that’s necessarily wrong, but there’s an inherent conflict of interest there. Sometimes it’s absurd.

The taste test cannot be fiddled. There are problems with the taste test. I mean, problems having to do with just logistics, do-ability. How many taste samples can a given panel do in a day, in a week, in a month. How much does that cost. I’m not saying that it’s a perfect system. As you said earlier, if we could get a machine that would do this objectively and somehow make sure that the people who are programming that machine have the right intentions, that would be the best case scenario. No one would question the objectivity of a machine.

Curtis CordBesides seeing extra virgin on a label when it really isn’t, another thing you often see on a label that is untrue is “Made in Italy”. Is “Made in Italy” meaning less as time goes by? Spain is making some pretty great olive oil. A lot of other places are too. French wine was eventually hit with a reality check as were other famous brands. Will we start to see an end to the premium people are willing to pay for “Made in Italy” or in other words, will substance eventually prevail over style?
Tom MuellerI think unless Italy as a country stands up and says, “Look. It’s time for a change here. It’s time to clear our names.” Then absolutely substance is going to trump style sooner or later. People are going to say … Well first of all, they’re going to understand that what a bottle that says “Made in Italy” and especially “Packed in Italy”, “Bottled in Italy”, that is absolutely a scam. It’s to trick people into thinking that the olives were harvested and grown in Italy and that in most cases is not the case.

Last year Italy produced two hundred and fifty thousand tons. A tiny fraction of what Spain even on a bad year produced. How much olive oil came out of Italy last year? I’m betting it was more or less the same. Why is that, because seventy eight or eighty percent of it was imported from Spain, Tunisia, and various other places that produced a lot more oil and simply had a sticker change and a flag change. What does “Made in Italy” mean anymore or at least what does bottled and packed in Italy mean. Very, very little. If you’re a savvy consumer, it’s more like an insult. It’s more like someone is trying to take you for a ride than to actually sell you an honest product.

Curtis CordAustralia adopts its own standards. South Africa follows. California has its own standards now, hoping the rest of this country will eventually follow its lead. The IOC is always working on its own version. There are so many special interests at play that the prospects for the different camps working together seem pretty slim, don’t they?
Tom MuellerI think it’s difficult. I think on the one hand you have a massive industry that’s working on a commodity food and lowest common denominator and quality and lowest price. On the other, in certain groups you have people who are saying, “Look, we have excellent oil that we make ourselves, why should we have unfair competition from cheap low grade imports?”

The problem is that the consumer once again is caught in this crossfire of information and misinformation, which is a theme that we’ve come back to again and again during this conversation. Misinformation. What Australia, what South Africa, what to a certain extent California has done is very important in raising or lowering the perimeters. Raising the quality requirements for the chemistry. Now, exactly how to communicate that to the average consumer who walks into a store and won’t even be able to see that information, that’s another question. That’s one where I think some government body taking an enlightened view of the consumer rather than special interest groups or industries could really play a big role. Whether they will or not, I don’t know.

Curtis CordWell, we’ve seen some of that. For example, Spain and Portugal have banned the use of refillable olive oil cruets. Restaurants need to put branded bottles on the tables now. In England, retailers can’t sell olive oils from bulk containers or fusti. While many see the logic behind moves like these, do they seem oddly after-the-fact to you?
Tom MuellerYou have to guarantee what’s in the bottle first. I think that one of the exciting new developments that’s happened in Italy and is starting to happen in other places is investigators are walking into supermarkets and taking bottles off the shelves and testing them. Which is kind of a new thing. That’s been done by individuals in the past and they can slap lawsuits. The investigators who actually walk into a supermarket and say, “Okay show me what you got. What’s really in that bottle.” That’s a major step. Then naming the names of the people who don’t come up to the standard. That’s happened in Spain, that’s happened in Italy. I think that’s the kind of action that really is required. Frankly, if it’s bad oil that goes into a restaurant, it doesn’t really help your consumer much.

The seal that protects bad oil is not worth the plastic it’s made out of.

Curtis CordWho should enforce standards in the U.S.?
Tom MuellerWell, the FDA is charged with that. They have the know how to do it. They have the people that could be brought up to snuff very quickly. I just don’t think that at this point there are the resources and behind the lack of resources is the lack of political will. Sadly, many industries don’t want to have the FDA to poke into their private business. They want to be able to do what they want to do when they want to do it. That means that the American consumer, the American food consumer, is in many cases left pretty much exposed to various levels of dishonesty.

Curtis CordSeems like the U.S. and its agencies will always have bigger problems perhaps.
Tom MuellerWell there certainly are bigger problems. Several people over the years have said, “Olive oil. That’s kind of nice. Boy, what a first world problem.”

Curtis CordRight.
Tom MuellerOn the one hand, if you make olive oil or if you love olive oil, it’s not a first world problem. It’s a real quality of life problem. It’s the tip of the ice berg in terms of what we see on labels of all foods. I think it’s more than a first world problem, but there are bigger problems. When you have people dying of massive salmonella outbreaks or botulism or other bio-terrorism threats and so on. I understand that the FDA does have a number of other issues that they need to address. Having said that again, this is a paradigm food. This is a symbolic food. Both for the Mediterranean and for America.

My mother was prescribed a Mediterranean diet and I said, “That sounds good. Did the doctor tell you anything about which olive oils to choose?” “Oh no.” It’s fine to talk about health and longevity and so on, but if you don’t go into the details of exactly what was on the materials, what ingredients you’re using, again it’s not worth the paper it’s printed on.

Curtis CordIt seems like in the face of the lack of enforcement, various groups have stepped up efforts to provide consumer confidence in the form of quality seals be it a designation of origin like a DOP, seals like California Extra Virgin or the North American Olive Oil Association. Programs like QV Extra or Extra Virgin Alliance. Even the USDA has a monitoring program which still has just one participating company. None of these programs seem to have the muscle to break through to consumers on a wide scale which begs the question wouldn’t it be great if the seal extra virgin olive oil had enough credibility on it’s own?
Tom MuellerThat’s exactly it. We already have a pretty good definition. We already have the basis of a strong, legal standard of excellent food. We have decades of experience in how to determine how good or how bad that stuff is. We need people to enforce it. I happen to think a lot of undertakings, like the Extra Virgin Alliance. I know the people who run that, Alexandra Devaranne and Paul Miller very well and they have the interest of great oil at heart. I don’t know how many people they’re going to be able to reach. I personally would give them a big megaphone but I’m not in the megaphone business.

I think you’re absolutely right. At the end of the day, people have proposed extra extra virgin. We’re really getting to be silly here I think in simply not applying what we have in front of us. Then taking into account science. We have good science that tells us a lot about what is healthy oil olive oil and what is less healthy olive oil. It tracts very tightly to sensory analysis and to chemical analysis. Well, okay. We have a good definition of extra virgin olive oil. Several. I think the tighter the better in terms of health. It’s problematic to determine where the consumer is going to his or her most reliable and most useful information. Clearly, the health aspect is one of the key drivers of change.

Curtis CordI understand there’s a “6o Minutes” episode airing in the near future that our listeners might now want to miss?
Tom MuellerYes, I think it should be very interesting. They’re doing a pretty hard hitting show on olive oil and other Italian foods and agro-mafia. Mafia involvement in food production in Italy. I think it should be a good show.

Curtis CordWell we’ll be watching. Tom, it’s been very interesting. Thank you.
Tom MuellerCurtis, it’s been a pleasure. Thank you.