A £35 MILLION racket in which shoppers in countries, including Britain, unwittingly bought fake Italian olive oil has been smashed by police.
More than 400 officers were involved in a series of dawn raids at farms and olive presses across the south of Italy, as part of operation "Golden Oil".
Police said the criminals involved had falsely obtained European Union funds to produce the fake olive oil, which was marketed as "Made in Italy".
Twenty-three people were arrested in the raids in Bari, Lecce, Brindisi and Cosenza. Police seized 85 farms, 23 oil processing plants, three distribution firms and dozens of bank accounts.
Officials said lower-quality olives from Tunisia, Greece and Spain had been imported and then crushed and sold off as olive oil made in Italy – some bottles ended up in British supermarkets. It is not known which UK stores or brand names were involved.
During the raids, police found invoices to the EU for regional subsidies totalling more than 4.6 million and receipts for fake olive sales, which came to more than 35 million.
A spokesman for Coldiretti, the Italian farmers' union, said: "This operation confirms the need to check labels and confirm the origin of olive oil sold in Italy and across Europe.
"In the last year alone, there has been an increase of 25 per cent in fake olive oil – in many cases, inferior olives are used and the product is labelled as 'Made in Italy' when, in reality, it has come from abroad.
"Olives are imported from elsewhere within the Mediterranean basin, such as Spain, Greece and Tunisia, and then pressed and passed off as Italian olive oil when, quite clearly, it is not."
Paolo De Castro, Italy's agriculture minister, said: "The aim of the operation was to control the production and origin of the olive oil and guarantee consumers. Olive oil is a national product of Italy and is a crucial part of the classic Mediterranean diet.
"We cannot have the image ruined by fake olive oil.
"Proper and genuine labelling of products is the honest way to fight this problem, and checks such as this ensure proper controls and show how alert and attentive we are."
Mr De Castro recently revealed that the Italian government had investigated 787 olive oil producers and found 205 were guilty of adulterating their products with low-grade oils, or falsely labelling their bottles.
In the worst cases of fraud, cheaper colza oil, with colouring and artificial flavouring, is labelled and sold as olive oil.
Earlier this year, the Belgian authorities destroyed a shipment of more than 3,000 bottles of Californian-made sparkling wine as part of a crackdown on illegally labelled champagne. The destruction of the bubbly highlighted a global battle by European food and drink producers to protect their brands by enforcing laws that say only products made in their original regions can carry names such as champagne, Parma ham or Danish blue cheese.
In EU members states and those non-EU nations that recognise label-of-origin rules, champagne can come only from the region of the same name in northern France. Despite strenuous lobbying from Italy, olive oil from there does not enjoy such "geographical indications" (GIs); other examples include Scotch whisky, Parma ham and Roquefort cheese.
'IT'S LIKE SELLING A GUCCI THAT ISN'T A GUCCI'THE discovery of the fake olive oil racket is a setback for Italy in its campaign to force all European manufacturers to declare the source of their oil.
Much of it comes from places such as Spain and Tunisia despite having a brand name or a label design which implies it is Italian.
"It's like selling Gucci that isn't Gucci, or a Rolex that isn't a Rolex," according to Massimo Gargano, head of Unaprol, the Italian olive producers' association.
Italy's olive farmers have convinced the Italian government to change previous rules which allow oil to be labelled as Italian as long as it is blended in Italy even if, as is often the case, it has been trucked in from overseas.
Italy is both the biggest exporter and importer of olive oil, but its annual production of about 650,000 tonnes is not enough to satisfy even domestic demand for the ingredient at the heart of the Mediterranean diet.
Unaprol estimates that only some 20 per cent of "Italian" olive oil is made from olives grown in Italy.
The changes have heartened Italy's olive producers, who hope to be able to charge a premium for genuinely Italian produce, but have not impressed the companies that use the image of Italy to help sell olive oil blended, but not necessarily grown there.
Mr Gargano said: "If a consumer comes across a bottle which has on it Tuscan hills and cypress trees you can't then sell Moroccan oil.
"A consumer should be able to buy Moroccan oil, if it says Moroccan oil."