On Nov. 14, some legislators drew attention to two letters written by the Spanish government — in 2009 and 2011 — warning Taiwan that some olive oil imported from Spain was being mixed with other oils or inaccurately labeled by Taiwanese firms. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) did not pay a great deal of attention to the warning, and its failure to act on Spain’s advice eventually led to the problem of certain manufacturers fooling consumers by mixing cheaper oils in with their olive oil.
The FDA can hardly deny its share of the blame. While Taiwanese edible oil manufacturers have made a lot of money and think a great deal of themselves, very few of their staff have a professional background in edible oil production. They do not know how to blend oil in the right proportions, still less how to add copper chlorophyllin to inferior oils to make them look like more expensive olive or grape seed oils.
The truth is that dishonest people can be found anywhere. While some Taiwanese factories have been guilty of producing adulterated olive oil, the same kind of thing has happened in Spain and other olive-producing countries.
In 2008, the Spanish-based International Olive Council defined “olive oil” as “the oil consisting of a blend of refined olive oil and virgin olive oils,” while “refined olive oil” is defined as “the olive oil obtained from virgin olive oils by refining methods.” Since the refinement process inevitably leads to a loss of color, the resulting oil will be colorless and transparent.
When virgin and refined olive oils are blended, the resulting olive oil will normally be golden-yellow, golden-green or light grass-green in color. If virgin olive oil is made from a relatively light-colored variety of olive, or from fully ripe olives, it will also be very light in color, rather than greenish.
Because consumers generally think that genuine olive oil must be some shade of green, vendors in the Japanese market seek to improve their sales by asking manufacturers to supply them with olive oil that is noticeably green. This is the reason why some Spanish manufacturers respond to overseas demand by adding fat-soluble copper chlorophyllin to the olive or grape seed oil they sell, giving it a visibly green appearance.
Although the very small amount of copper chlorophyllin added to edible oil may be harmless for the general population, some studies indicate that pregnant women and breastfeeding mothers should avoid consuming it.
For this reason, the EU passed a regulation in 1994 forbidding the addition of this food coloring to edible oils. However, that has not stopped a small number of Spanish oil manufacturers from using it on the quiet.
An article, entitled “Control of Olive Oil Adulteration with Copper-Chlorophyll Derivatives,” published by researchers from Spain’s Instituto de la Grasa (Institute of Fats and Oils) in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry in 2010, established techniques to test for copper chlorophyllin, by which misuse of the substance by dishonest Spanish companies could be detected.
Given that the FDA suspects that some imported olive and grape seed oils may have had copper chlorophyllin illegally added to them in their countries of origin, it should order the customs service to conduct border sample inspections to block tainted oils before they enter the country. Such a measure would help to safeguard the interests of consumers in Taiwan.
Liou Pei-pai is a former director of the Taiwan Animal Health Research Institute.
Translated by Julian Clegg