You're Buying Fake Olive Oil, Wine, and Mozzarella from the Mob


Back in the day, the mafia ran illegitimate businesses -- gambling, drugs, booze -- or squeezed people on everyday functions, like trash removal. They still do, surely. But now you can thank the mob for illegitimizing your favorite foods -- namely olive oil, wine, and mozzarella cheese -- by selling you counterfeit trash.

On Sunday, "60 Minutes" aired an investigation detailing the new, nefarious food business of the Italian mafia, which brings in an estimated $16 billion per year. Case in point: in December, authorities confiscated 7,000 tons of counterfeit olive oil set for export. 

The profit margin can be three times better than cocaine.

According to the report, the mob often dilutes real-deal olive oil with sunflower or canola oil, scrubbing the cheap stuff with chemicals to mask the taste. And up to a staggering 80% of all extra virgin olive oil sold in the US could fail the standard benchmark it requires. As the Daily Beast reported in November, Italy opened investigations into seven of the country's largest olive-oil producers for cutting their expensive exports with lesser oils. As the report explains, "extra-virgin has an acidity of no more than 0.8 grams per 100 grams of oil, and it must be made from the first press of the olives," leading to a significantly higher price. It's big business, too, as journalist Thomas Mueller told "60 Minutes."

"The best can sell for $50-a-gallon...but a fake costs just seven dollars to make," Mueller said. "The profit margin can be three times better than cocaine."

To counteract the mob muscle, Italy has set up a task force of more than 60 police officers tasked with taste-testing olive oil -- yes, cops getting paid to eat something other than donuts -- with the sole mission of sussing out fake foods.

Beyond just diluting your EVOO, however, mobsters are placing fake labels on swill red wines. For example, in 2014, cops intercepted 30,000 bottles of table red that was going to be labeled as high-end Brunello Di Montalcino -- which would have fetched $5 million.

How to know if your favorite Italian foods are legit? There's no sure-fire way. As the Daily Beast article suggests, your food and drink should pass the smell test. But unless you're a trained expert, chances are, you won't be able to tell the difference.

Perhaps ignorance, when it comes to food, really is bliss.

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Ryan Craggs is Thrillist's Senior News Editor. He lived in Italy for a while. It was a weird time in his life. Follow him @ryanrcraggs.