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Italy plans to cut down thousands of olive trees to fight infections; counterfeit oil surge expected to hit market

Olive oil

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(NaturalNews) Olive tree growers in Italy, where a bulk of the world's olive oil is produced, are protesting a government plan to chop down thousands of olive trees in an attempt to stop the spread of xylella fastidiosa. The bacterium, which causes olive trees to shrivel and stop bearing fruit, threatens to substantially reduce olive oil production in the Puglia region, which currently generates some 11 million tons of olives per year.

Olives grown in the Puglia region, which are used to make some of the country's highest quality olive oils, represent about one third of the national crop, hence the aggressive action to contain the bacterium and salvage as many olive orchards as possible. According to the Daily Mail Online, the first phase of chop-downs will occur in a 20,000-acre area between Lecce and Brindisi, which contains some 11 million trees.

Seven trees have already been cut down and are now set to be burned, despite protests by some growers who contend the actions will not prevent the spread of xylella fastidiosa. The disease has already led to a 35 percent reduction in olive oil production throughout Puglia, which is located in the "heel" portion of Italy's boot-shaped region.

"We have to take decisive measures with immediate effect," stated Vytenis Andriukaitis, the European Commissioner for Food Safety and Security, noting that he is "profoundly concerned by the gravity of the situation."

"Naturally, it is very painful for the growers, but it is necessary to remove all the affected trees -- it is the most effective measure."

Many olive oils are already adulterated or fake; new shortage due to bacterium will only make things worse

Italy currently holds a 51 percent market share on olive oil in the U.S., making it the largest supplier in the country. It's also the primary supplier of olive oil to Canada, Japan, Hong Kong, Singapore and Austria. Other countries that heavily import Italian olive oil include Brazil, China, Korea, India and Russia.

What the bacterium-fighting measures in Italy mean for these and other countries is that olive oil prices will likely increase in the coming year. Officials say they have no choice in the matter, as European Union countries such as France have already instituted boycotts of Puglian fruits and vegetables in order to avoid letting xylella fastidiosa cross their borders.

In addition, many olive oils coming from Italy are already under scrutiny for allegedly being "cut" with cheaper oils. In 1997 and 1998, olive oil was declared to be the most adulterated product in the European Union, according to a 2007 report in The New Yorker. The current situation is likely to make the problem worse as counterfeiters will be motivated to produce more adulterated oil to make up for the drop in supply.

The book Extra Virginity: The Sublime and Scandalous World of Olive Oil by Tom Mueller contends that up to 50 percent of the "extra-virgin" olive oil currently being sold in the U.S. is adulterated in some way; in some cases, it contains added canola or soybean oils. The report by The New Yorker estimates that up to 90 percent of the olive oil sold in Italy as extra virgin isn't actually what it claims to be.

"It's anything but extra-virgin, the oil we have here," stated Leonardo Marseglia, the managing director of an olive oil and vegetable oil company in Monopoli.

To learn how to better spot fake olive oils and to see which brands tested as adulterated by the University of California, Davis, check out the report [PDF].






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