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Crushing news for foodies... virgin olive oil is running out (and it's thanks to the weather)
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- Drought in Spain and elsewhere in southern Europe has hit harvest
- Crop has fallen by more than half compared with last year
- UK retailers using olive oil as loss leader to attract middle class shoppers
By Sean Poulter
PUBLISHED: 18:43 EST, 5 March 2013 | UPDATED: 20:09 EST, 5 March 2013
This year's crop of virgin olive oil has been severely affected by drought in southern Europe
Nigella and Jamie might have to rethink some recipes after warnings of an international shortage of extra virgin olive oil.
The ingredient, generously drizzled over everything from salads to pasta dishes and roasted vegetables, has fallen victim to weather extremes.
While Britain suffered its wettest summer in 100 years during 2012, the farmers of Spain were struggling to cope with a drought.
As a result, the Spanish harvest is predicted to be down by as much as 60 per cent, creating shortages of extra virgin olive oil and pushing up prices.
Perversely, British retailers are currently using olive oil as a loss leader, cutting the price in order to attract middle class shoppers who will also spend on other products.
Tesco, for example, is offering five extra virgin olive oils at half price, ranging from £1.74 to £2.84 for 500ml. However, olive oil experts insist that the economics of the market mean this cannot last.
The Hojiblanca Group, an Andalucian based co-operative of more than 50,000 farmers, grows and presses more olives than anyone else in the world.
Its UK representative, Jeff Bayley, said: ‘With the harvest drawing to a close latest returns are showing that the Spanish olive crop is a fraction of previous years.
‘The crop forecast is for 700,000 tonnes of olives in 2013 against 1.6m tonnes last year following a sustained period of drought.
‘There will be a shortage of certain types of olive oil and this will definitely put upward pressure on prices.’
Mr Bayley said the current supermarket price cuts ‘would be unsustainable even if supplies were abundant’. He added: ‘With a shortage on the way the current situation can’t last.’
Other olive oil producing countries, including Greece, Italy, Turkey and Tunisia, have had their own drought problems and will not be able to make up the shortfall from Spain.
The situation is expected to fuel a burgeoning black market in stolen olive oil and an increase in the widespread adulteration of olive oil with cheap substitutes by food fraudsters.
Kitchen favourite: Popular chefs such as Nigella Lawson, left, and Jamie Oliver, right, often use extra virgin olive oil in their recipes
Just before Christmas one British firm was fined more than £20,000 for passing off a cheap pesto sauce as something far more gourmet.
Stark Naked Foods claimed its pesto was made with extra virgin olive oil and Grana Padano cheese, when in fact it was sunflower oil and a cheaper Latvian cheese.
In America, a company called Gourmet Factory is facing a lawsuit over its Capatriti brand of ‘100% pure olive oil’.
The case is being brought by the North American Olive Oil Association, which claims the product is actually olive pomace oil, a substance extracted using industrial solvents from the solid waste matter from olive oil mills, and not from olives.
Last July, Spanish police arrested the leader of a gang responsible for the theft of more than a million litres of the olive oil, which was then shipped to Italy for sale.
In 2011, two Spanish businessmen were sent to prison for selling extra virgin olive oil that turned out to be 75per cent sunflower oil.
Mr Bayley said consumers need to careful when buying olive oil to make sure they are getting what they expect.
‘If the bottle does not have the words ‘extra virgin’ on it, then it is more than likely a blend containing refined oils,’ he said.
‘There’s a big difference between an extra virgin olive oil and refined olive oils which should cost less.
‘The irony is that highly processed refined oils are often sold in the UK at similar prices to extra virgin which are the least processed and most natural olive oils.
‘No self-respecting Spaniard would pay the same price for refined as extra virgin olive oil.’
Hojiblanca Extra Virgin Olive Oil is the market leader in Spain with around 215,000 tonnes produced every year, which is four times total UK consumption.