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USDA prepares fig leaf for European olive producers

They may be preliminary, but the results are nonetheless shocking: Nearly 70 percent of the 19 different brands of foreign and domestic extra-virgin olive oil tested by researchers at UC Davis weren’t what they claimed.

Despite the assurance of labels and premium prices, much of the oil was adulterated with cheaper refined oils, pressed from olives already past peak, damaged by heat or light or just plain old and stale, according to a story by P.J. Huffstutter and Kristena Hansen of the Los Angeles Times.

“Our laboratory tests found that samples of importe olive oil labeled as ‘extra-virgin’ and sold at retail locations in California often did not meet international and U.S. standards,” the authors wrote in the report.

A total of 69 percent of imported olive oil tested failed for one reason or another, while nine out of 10 California-produced oils passed.

The report was made public as the clock ticks down to the fall when new, voluntary USDA. rules will take effect. While U.S. law bars manufacturers from selling blended oils labeled as the real thing, no law legally defines the categories common to shoppers: Pumice, virgin and extra-virgin. As such, unscrupulous marketers apparently have no internal conflict, and face no legal sanctions, when they up-label inferior grades to command higher prices.

While some industry critics questioned the study’s methodology and assailed the results, this is far from the first time that European olive oil industry has been singled out as rife with corruption.

Often times in the real world of interest group politics, real consumer protection is waylaid to avoid upsetting a sacred cow industry, its lobbyists, and their showers of campaign cash. But the case for voluntary regulations in this case is extraordinarily nonsensical. California olive producers can’t compete on price or quality in the marketplace if unscrupulous Europeans can hide behind the skirts of toothless rules. The real question is why federal officials want to protect a decades-old scam at the expense of American consumers and farmers.

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