Olive Oil Lawsuit Alleges Misleading Label Claims

We recently wrote that researchers at UC Davis found most <"http://www.yourlawyer.com/topics/overview/Extra_Virgin_Olive_Oil">extra virgin olive oils tested—and they looked at some pretty popular brands, including Bertolli, Popeian, Carapelli, Mezzetta, and Mazzola, to name just some—are not what they claim to be. As a matter-of-fact, the team found that over two-thirds of oils claiming to be extra-virgin, were not and did not meet international or pending US standards.

Now, the Los Angeles Times writes that a group of chefs, restaurants, and so-called “cooking enthusiasts” have filed a complaint against a variety of olive oil makers and retailers. The plaintiffs are seeking an injunction to prevent distribution of questionable oil and may seek restitution in the form of hundreds of millions of dollars for profits obtained through deception, added the LATimes.

Extra virgin is the highest grade olive oil, according U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the International Olive Council (an international, intergovernmental organization that deals with issues involving olives and olive oil) standards. To bear the label “extra virgin,” olive oil must be cold-processed to prevent degradation of aromatic compounds; have higher levels of healthful fats and antioxidants; and have relatively low acidity levels—0.8 grams per 100 grams or less.

The complaint, just filed in Orange County Superior Court, alleges that some of these products are diluted with inferior ingredients and producers and outlets—Wal-Mart Stores Inc. and Bristol Farms—have deceived Californians about the quality of the olive oil sold in that state, said the LATimes. Other defendants—Gelson’s Markets, Kmart, and Target Corporation—are being accused of charging extra virgin olive oil prices for inferior products, said the LATimes. Outlets such as Trader Joe’s and Costco were not named because products sold at those locations were not found to be adulterated.

Extra virgin olive oil can be adulterated by mixing it with cheaper refined oils, such as hazelnut oil, or with a cheaper refined olive oil, making the adulteration more difficult to chemically detect.

The UC Davis research team found that 69 percent of the imported oils and 10 percent of the California-produced oils sampled failed to meet internationally accepted standards for extra virgin olive oil. This type of mislabeling could be costing consumers a bundle, as olive oil labeled extra virgin is considered a premium product. According to a report in the LA Times, in one California grocery store, a 750-milliliter bottle of Bertolli’s extra-virgin olive oil cost $14.29, while the same-size bottle of Bertolli’s extra-light olive oil cost $7.99. Overall, US consumers spend $700 million annually on olive oil labeled extra virgin.

While federal law bars a company from not disclosing on the label that it is selling a blend of oils, the LATimes said previously, it is technically legal for companies to mark lower-quality olive oil as top-end. There are no federal rules that define what “virgin” or “extra-virgin” olive oil. The USDA standards, which are set to go into effect in October, are only voluntary.

Many have long suspected that much of the extra virgin olive oil marketed in the US was anything but and the UC Davis study, the first of its kind by an American academic institution, provides the first empirical proof of this deception. The newly-filed lawsuit relied heavily on these findings, said the LATimes.

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