Illegal Olive Oil: A Mediterranean Tale of Theft, Fraud, and Rising Prices

The Mediterranean olive oil industry grapples with a surge in illegal activities, from counterfeit schemes to audacious thefts of entire olive trees.

In a beautiful Mediterranean region, where olive groves stretch as far as the eye can see, a clandestine world has emerged, fueled by the surging demand and soaring prices of olive oil. 

The bucolic scenes hide a complex web of illegal activities, from counterfeit oil schemes to brazen thefts of olive trees, as criminal enterprises exploit the golden commodity’s scarcity.

The quiet town of Thessaloniki in northern Greece recently witnessed the arrest of a father-son duo accused of masterminding a counterfeit olive oil operation. A staggering 13 tonnes of fake oil, disguised as premium extra virgin olive oil, were uncovered. 

The duo’s modus operandi involved procuring sunflower oil from Bulgaria, infusing it with colorants to mimic the genuine product. While some of the counterfeit goods were sold in Bulgaria, the rest infiltrated the Greek market, highlighting the escalating trend of fraud in the olive oil industry.

This incident is not isolated. The broader Mediterranean region, including Spain and Italy, has seen a spate of arrests targeting illicit olive oil trade. A joint operation involving the Guardia Civil, Italy’s carabinieri, and Europol led to the detention of 11 individuals and the confiscation of over 5,000 liters of counterfeit olive oil. 

The criminal network, accused of peddling substandard oils as premium varieties, was dismantled through raids and inspections of olive-processing cooperatives in Spain’s Ciudad Real, Jaén, and Córdoba provinces.

Spain, the largest producer of olive oil, finds itself at the epicenter of this illegal trade. Criminal enterprises in the country have adopted ingenious methods, including altering lower-grade oils to imitate virgin and extra-virgin varieties, complete with falsified documentation. 

The manipulation involves blending cloudy oils, by-products of olive oil production, with higher-quality counterparts to meet the required standards. By evading traceability through unregistered companies, these criminals have successfully infiltrated the market with their fraudulent and illegal products.

Italy, too, has faced a similar challenge, with the carabinieri uncovering a sophisticated falsification operation involving significant oil-processing companies. Simultaneous searches in both Spain and Italy resulted in the seizure of over 5,200 liters of illegal olive oil, €91,000 in cash, and four high-end vehicles. 

The European Commission’s 2022 report on food safety underscores that passing off a cheaper, inferior product as a higher quality through mislabelling is a prevalent and illegal method in olive oil fraud.

The surge in theft and fraud coincides with a significant spike in olive oil prices. In the European Union, the average price has surged by 75% since January 2021, with Spain experiencing a staggering 150% increase in the past two years. 

Supermarkets in Spain have resorted to extreme measures, such as security tags and padlocks, to counter a 30% rise in theft targeting retailers in 2022 and an additional 12% in 2023. This has prompted some Spaniards to cross the border into Portugal, where olive oil prices remain notably lower.

In Greece, the price of olive oil has surged by almost 70% between January 2021 and September 2023. Experts, anticipate further price hikes, attributing them to the depletion expected in the new harvest for 2023/24 due to recurring droughts. 

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Global olive oil production is predicted to decrease to 2.4 million tonnes, marking a decline from the previous year and falling below the worldwide demand of approximately 3 million tonnes.

The European Union Agency for Law Enforcement Cooperation (EUROPOL) acknowledges that a combination of factors, including general price inflation, reduced production, and increasing demand, has created an ideal environment for fraudulent and illegal producers to thrive. 

The situation is further exacerbated by climate change-related challenges, with droughts impacting global olive oil output for the second consecutive year.

Theft has taken on new dimensions, extending beyond the pilfering of bottled oil to the brazen theft of entire olive trees. Incidents in Italy reveal organized thieves arriving with tankers and pipes to siphon off olive oil directly from groves, highlighting the audacity of these criminal activities. 

In the northern Greek region of Halkidiki, an estimated 37 tonnes vanished from olive mills, while more than 100kg of olive oil was reportedly stolen from groves in Messinia, at the southern tip of the Peloponnese.

As worsening climate conditions continue to plague olive-growing regions, illegal activities are likely to persist. The value of olives has transformed into a lucrative commodity, prompting a surge in midnight thefts as teams harvest illegally, press the oil, and vanish into the night. 

The olive oil industry finds itself at a crossroads, battling not only the impacts of climate change but also a shadowy underworld exploiting the precious “liquid gold” that has become a symbol of Mediterranean culture. As consumers grapple with the authenticity of their olive oil purchases, law enforcement faces the daunting task of curbing the rise of illegal trade in this vital culinary treasure.

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