ATHENS – As olive oil prices soar out of sight and out of reach for many – seeing thieves target supplies and even trees – Greece is awash in bulk olive oil sold in tin cans, most of it adulterated, and sold secretly.
That was outlined to reporters at a news conference by leaders in the sector who said the underground sale of the bulk olive oil that’s not inspected is costing the state up to 70 million euros ($74.88 million) in lost tax revenues annually.
“More than two-thirds of the bulk olive oil samples that have been taken from time to time as part of checks are inappropriate or incompatible with the claims of their producers or, in the worst case, adulterated, said National Interprofessional Olive Oil Organization President Emmanouil Giannoulis.
It was said that about 70,000 tons is traded in bulk in the domestic market, without documents, in tins or plastic containers and that the quality is dubious in many cases, buyers taking their chances.
Further driving up prices has been a poor crop season being seen coming, the loss of trees to deadly summer fires and floss and most of Greece’s olive oil sold to other countries, much of it rebranded.
About 25 percent of domestic production and more than 70 percent of domestic consumption is traded in bulk, the journalists were told, explaining why there aren’t any statistics on more exact numbers.
“In Spain, they may know every month with minimal delay the balance of the previous month, but in Greece we do not know precisely any of the above,” said Scientific Society of Olive Growing (4E) Vice-President Vassilis Zampounis.
Greek olive oils that aren’t sold in bulk are among the world’s best, especially Extra Virgin that is prized for its quality and health benefits, studies showing it can even drastically reduce the risk of dementia.
With prices jumping, doubling or more, many households and consumers can’t afford it and are switching to generic brands or other oils and the so-called Green Gold is being targeted by thieves who go so far as to cut down trees.
There have also been reported break-ins of olive oil warehouses, allegations by some producers that it’s being stolen in-house and not by outsiders, and seen anti-theft measures with guards and other measures, including electronically.
In a report, Euronews indicated the lengths to which the olive oil thieves are going to get their hands on the product that can be re-sold secretly, further costing the state revenues.
There are vast olive groves going back to ancient times outside Athens, now near the international airport where they offer tourists and those driving by a look at history and the prized trees that are a symbol of Greece.
Neilos Papachristou, who runs an olive mill and nearby grove in a fourth-generation family business said chainsaw robbers are driving growers to harvest early and settle for lower yields to try and avoid long-term damage.
“The (robbers) look for heavily loaded branches and they cut them. So, not only do they steal our olives, but they cause the tree serious harm. It takes 4-5 years for it to return to normal,” Papachristou said.
Christos Bekas, who owns 5,000 olive trees, said that after repeated raids by thieves, he decided to cannibalize his crop with an early harvest to prevent likely higher losses by waiting.
“Last year, 3.7 kilos of olives would produce a kilo of oil. Now that it’s close to 10 kilos of olives for a kilo of oil, for my 600 kilos of olives I will get 60 kilos of oil. Last year I got 180,” Bekas said, a 300 percent decline in yield.
Benchmark prices in Spain, Greece and Italy are monitored for Extra Virgin Olive Oil (EVOO) by the International Olive Council, an intergovernmental organization based in Madrid.
In late 2019, wholesale prices dropped below 3 euros ($3.21) per kilogram (2.2 pounds.) By September, it had tripled to 9 euros ($9.63) that further spiked prices on supermarket shelves to sticker-shock head-turning levels.
(Material from the Associated Press was used in this report)