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How low can olive oil go?

Australia is becoming a dumping ground for low-grade olive oil, with no effective controls in place on cheap imitations coming in from Europe.

Consumer demand for extra virgin olive oil, known to be a ‘healthy fat’, is soaring in Australia, which has attracted European manufacturers.

But some extra virgin olive oil sold here – the majority of which comes from western Europe – contains waste ingredients and unrefined contents, and is too old by the time it reaches our shores, experts told the ABC’s 7.30 Report.

Australia currently has no controls on the product, or penalties for misleading manufacturers.

Extra virgin olive oil comes from the first pressing of the olives and has undergone no chemical treatments.

Modern Olives technical director, Leandro Ravetti, said European exporters were devising clever ways to disguise their product.

“There is an enormous amount of time, money and technology in trying to improve blends, develop products that can pass legislation,” he said.

The Australian Olive Association’s Paul Miller said Australian consumers had a right to feel betrayed. “Clearly the global industry has said, `well we’re going to target this market’, and it’s exploding, so they’re substituting lower grade stuff to meet the demand.”

Miller said the Australian Olive Association had discussed its concerns with the federal government. Agricultural minister Tony Burke said the government was working with the industry to improve the quality of olive oil sold in Australia.

“I don’t doubt that there’d be some players that would try to go a very long way to mask what’s in the bottle but Australian industry will always be in front of that game,” he said.

“We’re working with industry to work towards that end.”

The government has urged the industry to work with independent body Standards Australia and has requested the involvement of the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC).

ACCC chairman Graeme Samuel said the watchdog was determined to stamp out misleading products being sold in Australia and insisted it treated importers the same as local manufacturers.

“What we have to determine is whether, as the law stands at present – which is a law that prohibits producers, manufacturers and marketers from engaging in misleading and deceptive conduct – whether that law has been breached,” he said.

“It is appropriate for us to investigate these issues but it may well be that circumstance, lack of standards or the like, might make it difficult,” he said.

Modern Olives executive chairman, Rob McGavin, said that it was hard for the ACCC to monitor imported products.

“If an Australian company was mislabelling a product they would take them to the cleaners straight away and rightly so. But for some reason with imported products, the ACCC (finds) it’s too hard … they’re in a different country, they don’t speak the same language … they do nothing about it.”

Experts say consumers would stand a better chance of avoiding imitations if they bought locally-made extra virgin olive oil.

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