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Legally Sweet

Conflict over the essences of sweeteners and olive oils brings chemistry into the courtroom

Roald Hoffmann

Olive Oil

Essential transformation (sucrose to sucralose) came up in another legal case, one in which I was peripherally involved. It had to do with olive oil, and was at heart a "country of origin" issue, a question of the conditions under which you could label a product "Made in Italy."

Olive%20tree%20and%20centrifugeClick to Enlarge ImageOlive oil comes in many grades. You know extra-virgin, the highest grade from the first pressing, but let me tell you about the worst from the last. After repeated extractions, one can get from skin, pits and flesh the last bit of oil. It is a foul-looking, smelly, unhealthy oil called "lampante." The name tells its story—it was burned in street lamps in years past. Lampante can be processed so that it becomes clear and free of health problems. A leading Italian manufacturer of olive oil, with a big U.S. market, bought lampante (very cheaply of course, of course) in country X, brought it to Italy, cleaned it up and added a smidgen of Italian olive oil. And wished to label it as "Made in Italy." This designation carries a real premium in the restricted American olive oil imagination; French and Spanish producers of superb oils grind their teeth about that.

U.S. Customs, in charge of such matters, objected. Last I heard, the matter was headed for Customs Court. My help was enlisted as a potential expert witness. In the end I did not testify, but before I took the problem on, the lawyers for the olive-oil company acquainted me with the body of "country of origin" law. What I read made a chemist's heart leap.

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