Above: ribollita, “twice-cooked” Tuscan bread soup drizzled with extra-virgin olive oil is one of life’s greatest pleasures.
Italy’s community of wine and food writers, Italian olive oil producers, and Italian politicians are still reeling in the wake of Nicholas Blechman’s sensationalist cartoon, “Extra-Virgin Suicide: the Adulteration of Italian Olive Oil,” published by the New York Times on January 24, 2014.
In an editorial published today, the editors of Il Parlamentare, a weekly magazine that covers politics in Italy, write: “This is how the New York Times ‘makes fun of Italy.’”
The cartoon erroneously reported that up to 69 percent of Italian olive oil is adulterated. And although the cartoon was later amended, it also incorrectly reported that oil from other countries could be legally labeled as “Italian” despite the provenance (see below).
[Today, the final panel of the cartoon reports that "an earlier version of this graphic contained several errors," including those cited here.]
The cartoon was purportedly based on data gathered by journalist Tom Mueller, who authors the blog Truth in Olive Oil. He is also the author of a Extra Virginity: The Sublime and Scandalous World of Olive Oil (Norton, 2013).
On January 29, Mueller appeared before the Italian parliament’s Chamber of Deputies (akin to our House of Representative) to answer questions about his research. During his appearance, he disavowed himself of the cartoon, which made explicit reference to his work.
“There is no connection to me,” said Mueller of the cartoon, “nor is it my work.” It is made up of “humorous images that incorporate fact but also — and above all — include glaring errors. They reflect a biased approach that ignores quality and focuses only on fraud.”
According to the Italian national daily Corriere della Sera coverage of his appearance before the chamber, he expects the Times to publish a retraction.
On January 31, Italian blogger Olga Mascolo published an interview with Mueller on the popular food blog Dissapore.
The following is an excerpted translation of the interview (to my knowledge, Mueller has only made these comments in Italian and they have not been published in an English-language forum; translation mine).
“There are two principal errors” in the cartoon. “The first is approximation. I wrote 200 pages on this subject documenting the problem of olive oil adulteration. But I also brought attention to those who are doing good work… The overwhelming majority does good work. There are just a few rotten apples who make life difficult for everyone.”
“In regard to the New York Times, it’s a cartoon, fifteen panels that give the impression that all of Italian olive oil is evil. But that’s not the case. The fact that such an authoritative newspaper has reported this makes it all the worse. This is not Home Simpson making silly declarations.”
“In particular, there is a vignette that claims that 69 percent of Italian olive oil is adulterated. That’s not the case. The figure is based on a California study that shows that, at most, the oil is not extra-virgin. But that doesn’t mean that it is adulterated.”
The following line in the New York Times cartoon was amended in a subsequent version:
“Bottles are labeled ‘Extra-Virgin’ and brand with the globally respected ‘Made In Italy.’ (Oddly this is legal, even if the oil does not come from Italy.)”
The current caption reads as follows:
“Bottles are labeled ‘Extra-Virgin’ and brand with the globally respected ‘Made In Italy.’ (Oddly this is legal, even if the oil does not come from Italy — although the source countries are supposed to be listed on the label.)”