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Olive Oil Concerns

All you wanted to know about Olive Oil and its Kashrut considerations.


Rabbi Yirmiyohu Kaganoff

The beginning of this week's parsha discusses the kindling of menorah with pure olive oil. In the days of Tanach and Chazal, olives and olive oil had many uses: The fruit was pickled and eaten; its oil was the first choice when one wanted clear, bright light. The oil was also used extensively for sicha, as a massage or rubdown oil - which people smeared on their bodies on a regular basis; and olive oil was even used as a depilatory. And, of course, olive oil was one of the main ingredients cuisine; as salad oil, as a dip for one's bread, and as cooking oil.

Today, olives are grown primarily for salad oil and as healthful cooking oil; although some varieties are cultivated primarily for their value as table fruit. Olives are much lauded for their health inducing properties. Numerous studies show that olive oil consumption reduces cholesterol, lowers blood pressure, helps prevent heart disease and even reduces the chances one has of developing certain cancers. Olives contain many vitamins, essential fatty acids, antioxidants, and other nutrients. When I once had the occasion to ask a prominent nutritionist how much olive oil he recommended one consumes daily, he responded: "As much as you can get yourself to eat." When I pointed out that oil is fattening, he responded that the health benefits one gains from consuming olive oil far offset any harm that may result from eating too much. He further noted that the body requires a certain amount of fat, and he contended that no harm would come to someone whose fat intake was predominantly olive oil.

This nutritionist's advice is currently being followed by an increasing number of people which has created a tremendous increase in olive oil demand.

The vast majority of the world's olive crop grows in the countries that rim the Mediterranean Sea. Italy is often associated as the headquarters of the world's olive crop, and indeed it is the world’s leading exporter of olive oil; although in fact, Spain is a larger producer of olive oil. Italians themselves consume so much olive oil that the country actually imports more olive oil than it exports. Nevertheless, quality olive oil production is often associated with Italy, and many brand names reflect this. Certainly, Italian cuisine often includes premium olive oil; and the cultivation and production of quality oil is an important part of the Italian economy.
It should be noted that the label on a product explains where the oil was bottled, not where the olives were grown and crushed. Thus, olive oil produced in Tunisia or Greece is often labeled, completely legally, as "product of Italy." To do this, an Italian firm purchases oil in bulk from one of its Mediterranean neighbors and bottles the product in its own facility in Italy. But it would be illegal for this company to bottle the product on site outside Italy and sell it as "product of Italy."
Kashrus concerns in olives.
There are two theoretical halachic concerns that could apply to olives, even if they are grown outside of Israel. Olives, like all fruits, that grow in the first three years from the planting of the tree are prohibited because of arlah, but in pratical terms one need not be concerned about this, since the halacha is that arlah on fruits that grew outside Eretz Yisrael applies only when one knows for certain that the fruit is arlah. There is another theoretical concern whether the olives may be infested with insects, however, again this is not a common problem.
In addition, the olives that grow in Israel are governed by all the rules of the agricultural mitzvos, called the mitzvos hateluyos ba'aretz, which require the separating of terumos and maasros and also a closer monitoring of the possibilities of arlah. Of course, these require proper scrutiny by a supervising kashrus agency.
How is olive oil produced?
There are approximately seven hundred olive varieties, or cultivars, whose distinctive tastes and aromas are developed and marketed, just as viniculture develops distinctive varieties of fine wine. Specialty olive oil producers have mastered the methods whereby they breed, grow, and produce their oil. The highest quality olive oil is produced by painstakingly harvesting the fruit by hand to assure that it not damaged, even though this method drives up the cost tremendously. Olives for quality oils are picked and milled within hours, to minimize oxidation and enzymatic reactions, which leave unpleasant tastes and odors in the oil and decrease its taste and fragrant qualities. These bouquet oils, like vintage wines, compete among connoisseurs for their taste. These oils are the Rolls-Royce of the olive industry and are sold privately or in gourmet shops, similar to the way one would acquire vintage wines.

It is interesting to note the many comparisons made between olives and grapes, and this also has halachic overtones. Both vineyards and olive farms are called kerem in Tanach and Mishnah Hebrew (see Berachos 35a). Wine and olive oil are the only fruit products used in korbanos on the mizbeiach. They both have the halachic distinctiveness of being the only fruit with a Torah requirement of separating terumos and maasros; and are the only fruits mentioned by the Mishnah and Gemara that may be squeezed for their product when they have shmittah or terumah sanctity.

There is an interesting technical difference between the grape and olives, which I am sure must have hashkafah ramifications. Whereas it requires much tending to coax the vine to produce quality winegrapes, the olive tree requires far less attention to produce quality olives. The main efforts required to produce quality oil are to harvest the olives exactly when they are ready and to crush them immediately without damaging them. Any significant delay reduces severely the quality of the oil extracted. This is also reflected in the halacha, which rules that one may harvest and process olives on Chol Hamoed, when work is usually prohibited, because delaying causes major loss (Mishnah, Moed Katan 11b).

The Crush
"The first pressing produces the best quality oil." I read this sentence in a manual on olive oil production, which immediately called to mind the comments of Chazal. When crushing olives to produce oil, only the very first oil is acceptable for the kindling of the Menorah. The oil produced afterwards is suitable for use in the menachos offerings of the Beis Hamikdash, but cannot be used for the Menorah. Indeed the Menorah deserves only the best quality oil.

Olive oil producers classify the thousands of natural components of olives into three categories: oil and oil-soluble nutrients, water and water-soluble nutrients and solids. The oil and oil-soluble nutrients are what comprises the oil. One wants the oil-soluble parts to remain in the oil, because this is what gives quality oil its unique flavor and also adds to its nutrients, but one needs to separate the oil from the remaining water and water-soluble components, which are called the fruit water, and the remaining solids, which, after the oil is removed, is called pomace.

The first step in separating the oil from the fruit water and the solids is to crush or grind the olives. In the time of the Gemara this was done by crushing the olives under the weight of huge wooden shafts the size of our telephone poles. Most modern facilities use a steel piece of equipment called a hammermill, which, true to its name, hammers the olives to a paste, and is highly efficient at extracting a large amount of oil in the shortest time. Some smaller family-operated businesses resist this approach, contending that the heat generated by the friction of the steel hammers damages the product, and therefore they still use stone mills to crush the olives. Oil produced in a hammermill is usually greener than produced in the older methods, since more of the olive skin becomes pulverized and crushed into the oil. After the olives have been completely crushed, they form a paste, from which the olive oil will eventually be removed.

The paste is then stirred or mixed slowly, which allows the small droplets of oil to join together, making it easier to remove. The oil is then separated from the fruit water and the solids. The modern olive oil industry has several different technologies to do this, none of which should involve any kashrus concerns.

Olives are almost unique among oil sources in that olive oil can be consumed in its crude form without refining. Almost all other edible oils: soy, canola, corn, cottonseed, peanut, palm, etc. require extensive refining using heat and chemicals to make the oil palatable. Furthermore, unrefined olive oil conserves most of its nutrients, whereas refining often destroys them.

By the way, quality olive oil is not filtered, since filtering removes taste and also many nutrients. This is why your emptied oil cruet has residual black spots that you want to scrub off. These "spots" are leftover solids in the olive oil that remain in the oil. It is good sign that you have this black residue in your cruet. If your oil had been filtered, it probably was not virgin oil to begin with, which would explain why no residue was left. (Often the oil contains too high a percentage of natural acid to be tasty, which is an important factor that we will discuss shortly. This oil requires refinement to be tasty.)

Leftover oil
The solids remaining after the oil and fruit-water are removed are called pomace, and still contain some olive oil. However, removing oil from the pomace requires refining by use of chemical extracting agents, and the resultant product is no longer considered virgin oil. This refined oil can be and is sold as "olive oil" although some prefer that it be labeled "pomace oil."

Refining olive or any other edible oil involves many kashrus concerns, including: the introduction of non-kosher enzymes or other processing substances to aid the refining and the risk that the steam or hot water used to heat the equipment has become non-kosher from previous use with animal products. The kashrus issues are magnified when dealing with a plant that produces also non-kosher products such as beef tallow, lard or non-kosher fish oils. For these reasons, one should not use refined vegetable oil without proper kosher certification.

Virgin oil
What is extra virgin oil, and what is virgin oil?
The oil produced by the methods described above is called virgin or cold-press oil. The term cold press can have many meanings, but in common parlance it refers to oil that is extracted without heating the olives or the use of chemicals. However, one should bear in mind that the term "cold press" actually has no legal meaning. Someone selling refined oil as cold press would be violating an industry standard, but cannot be prosecuted for violating the law. It is also important to note that the term virgin oil has no legal meaning in the United States, although there are many countries in the world where the term has a legal meaning. In those countries, someone selling refined olive oil as virgin oil can be prosecuted for violating the law. However, someone selling refined oil as virgin olive oil in the United States is exempt from prosecution, either civil or criminal.

There are four categories of virgin oil: extra virgin, virgin, ordinary virgin and virgin lamp oil.

The Italian standard for extra virgin oil is that its taste is excellent and has no defects, and that the oil has an acid content of less than 1%. The lower the acid content, the better the taste. Extra virgin oil is the Cadillac of the olive industry.

Virgin oil is not required to meet as high a standard for taste, but still has a positive taste profile, and contains acid content of up to 2%.

Ordinary virgin oil
Never heard of this? There is a reason why - either its taste is considered inferior or its acid content is greater than 2%. These are the Chevies of the olive industry. Usually, this oil undergoes further processing, which is called refining, to remove the excess acid and make it more palatable, and the resulting product should not be called virgin oil, but should be sold as "refined olive oil" or "olive oil" missing the adjective "virgin." Technically, if the oil is exclusively refined olive oil it may not be sold as "olive oil," but if it is a blend of "refined olive oil" and "ordinary virgin" oil it can be called "olive oil." This is the type of olive oil that is used in canned sardines packed in olive oil.

As I mentioned above, refining oil can create kashrus concerns, and therefore one certainly should not purchase "olive oil" without a reliable kosher supervision.

Virgin lamp oil
The most inferior category of cold press or virgin oil is called virgin lamp oil, or sometimes by its Italian name - lampante. This is oil whose taste is considered inedible, and therefore will probably not be used for food, but more likely for kindling or other non-food use. This raises a very interesting observation, since the Torah was more concerned that the oil used for kindling in the Menorah in the Mishkan should be only of the highest quality and was less concerned about the quality of oil used to produce the korbanos mincha, the meal offerings. This curiousity is not lost by the Midrash-

In the custom of the world, if someone has bad oil, he kindles it, and his good oil he cooks with. In the ohel moed and the Mikdash, one did not do this. Only the purest oil when for lighting, and the second quality went for the menachos.
Midrash Tanchuma, Tetzaveh 6

Kashrus Concerns of Virgin Oil
Assuming that no refining or adulteration took place, virgin olive oil produced outside of Eretz Yisrael product should have no kashrus problems. It would be unheard of for the equipment to be used for any other product, and there should be no adding of any other ingredients at all, certainly no non-kosher ones. There is a slight possibility that if the oil is shipped bulk that the oil could be stored or shipped in containers or ship holds that previously held non-kosher product, something that the kosher supervizing agency should attend to, but even if it did not, the concern here is fairly minimal.

Where is all the oil coming from?
However, there appears to be some discrepancy -- virtually all cold-press olive oil is sold retail as extra virgin, whereas industry experts contend that less than 10% of oil has less than 1% acid content, which means that there is not enough extra virgin oil to go around. If less than 10 percent of all olive oil produced in the world is really extra virgin olive oil, you might be wondering about the olive oil in your cupboard.

The answer appears to be that although the standards mentioned above are the legal definitions in Italy for extra virgin oil, no one usually checks to see whether the oil is indeed this low in acid content and whether it matches these flavor profiles. Although in 1991, the European Union instituted strict taste and aroma requirements for each grade of olive oil and established tasting panels certified by the International Olive Oil Council, these tests are rarely used in practice. Bear in mind that in the United States and indeed in much of the the world, the terms "extra virgin" "virgin" and even "cold press" have no legal meaning, and thus someone selling refined olive oil under an "extra virgin" label cannot be prosecuted.

For the kosher consumer, these concerns may not be a cause for worry, since virgin oil and even ordinary virgin oil should present no kashrus problems. However, other fraudulent practices should arouse some concern.

Adulteration of Olive Oil
All this assumes that the virgin olive oil that is sold is what it is claimed to be - or is at least, at a minimum, cold press olive oil. However, adulteration or mislabeling of olive oil is apparently quite common. Virgin olive oil is costly and time-consuming to produce, far more valuable than other oils, and very easy to doctor. Extra virgin olive oil is a product in high demand on the international market and commands a premium price.

Adulteration of olive oil is not a recent industry. The Greeks already reported unscrupulous oil merchants who mixed high-quality olive oil with cheaper substances like lard. The Gemara also mentions this concern: an opinion in the Gemara prohibits the use of unsupervised olive oil because of concern that it was contaminated with non-kosher product (Avodah Zarah 36a). This concern is also mentioned well over a thousand years later, when the Rama was asked whether one need be concerned that a barrel of olive oil may have become contaminated with animal fat (Shu"t HaRama # 53, 54).

Adulteration is especially common in Italy, the world’s leading importer, consumer, and exporter of olive oil. In February 2005, the Italian police broke up a criminal ring and confiscated a hundred thousand liters of bogus olive oil, with a street value of six million euros. The criminals colored low-grade soy oil and canola oil with industrial chlorophyll, flavored it with beta carotene, and packaged it in tins and bottles as extra virgin olive oil. In March 2008, 400 Italian police officers conducted "Operation Golden Oil" in which they confiscated produce from 85 farms after an investigation revealed that they were relabeling oils from other Mediterranean countries as Italian. In April 2008, another operation arrested 40 people for adding chlorophyll to sunflower and soybean oil and selling it as extra virgin olive oil; 25,000 liters of the fake oil were seized and prevented from being exported. There are also recorded instances of tankers containing loads of Turkish hazelnut oil and Argentinean sunflower-seed oil whose document of lading at sea was changed to read as olive oil.

It appears that these frauds are not isolated incidents. Police enforcement authorities in Italy have been quoted as saying "The vast majority of frauds uncovered in the food-and-beverage sector involve virgin olive oil." When I asked mashgichim who oversee production of olive oil, I was told that it is very common to find companies selling refined oil as virgin, or adding coloring and other ingredients to product they are selling as extra virgin oil.

The frauds mentioned above are easy to detect using chemical tests. However, more sophisticated scams take place at high-tech refineries, where the oil is doctored with substances like hazelnut oil and deodorized lampante olive oil. Since the finished product contains significant amounts of olive oil, this type of fraud is extremely difficult to detect by chemical analysis.

According to information I gathered from both published and communicated sources, I discovered that different kashrus organizations follow very different standards regarding what they consider sufficient proof that product labeled or claimed to be virgin olive oil is indeed such. Some treat all "extra virgin olive oil" and "virgin olive oil" as products that they consider to always be kosher. Although in my opinion this is a Pollyanna approach that assumes that there are no frauds or adulterations, they nevertheless insist that no one would dare sell adulterated virgin olive oil.

Others are more realistic. The OU's published standard is that they do not accept regular virgin or ordinary virgin olive oil as kosher without knowing the source, although they do accept extra virgin oil as a "Group One," the term the OU uses for a product considered reliably kosher regardless of its source and without any other indication. Their reasoning is that although there is a long litany of adulterations and fraud, all have been with vegetable oils and other vegetable sources and none with overtly non-kosher products. Although OU standards require supervision on all refined vegetable oils because of the many potential kashrus concerns involved, apparently the OU decision makers feel that they can permit unsupervised extra virgin oil since it is only a question as to whether the oil is adulterated, and even if it was adulterated, it is highly unlikely that this created a kashrus problem be'dei'evid, after the fact.

I then contacted the Eidah Hachareidis, which provides supervision on cold press olive oil from both Spain and Israel, and informed me that for Pesach production they require a mashgiach present at the plant from the time of the pressing through the bottling and for non-Pesach production they require a mashgiach to visit the plant frequently during the course of the production. All this is to guarantee that the product indeed has no kashrus concerns. The Eidah Hachareidis representative who oversees their overseas olive oil supervisions told me that they have seen many instances of companies adulterating their oil, or having in stock ingredients that could be used to adulterate oil. It is the Eidah Hachareidis policy not to provide any supervision to any company once they have indication that they might occasionally adulterate product.

My thoughts after this conversation were that this information is highly useful not only from a kashrus perspective, but also from the perspective of someone purchasing extra virgin or virgin olive oil who wants a guarantee that they are getting the health benefits they are paying for.

This Shiur is published also at Rabbi Kaganof's site
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